This post originally appeared on my blog in April 2013:
When my son Dan’s OCD was at its worst, his anxiety levels were sky-high and he could barely function. It would have been ludicrous for me to suggest he try yoga, or meditation, or any other stress reduction technique to help him feel better when, in fact, he could hardly get off the couch.
But he could pet our cats.
Our two cats at the time (Smokey and Ricky), both so lovable with distinct personalities, helped Dan immensely during those dark days. Whether they sat on his lap, just curled up on the couch next to him, or purred so loudly they sounded like engines revving, they allowed him to relax and brought him momentary peace. Other times they would engage in various cat-like antics, inciting a rare, but oh so cherished laugh from our son.
They didn’t bombard him with questions, asking if he was okay, or if he was hungry, or what was wrong. They were just there with Dan, and for a short time, his focus was diverted from his obsessions and compulsions. Smokey and Ricky were able to care for Dan in a way the rest of our family could not. An article in Time magazine called “The Mystery of Animal Grief,” explores how animals grieve. I find it fascinating, and no matter how you might interpret the various studies discussed in the article, I think it is hard to argue with the belief that animals do indeed form relationships, and are empathetic. What more does it take to comfort someone?
Certainly, there are many concrete examples of how pets can affect the lives of those with OCD. For example, if you have obsessions revolving around germs, I would think having to empty a litter box, or having your dog lick your face, would be quite an exposure.
When Dan moved into his own apartment after graduating college, one of the first things he did was foster a cat from a shelter. He has always been an animal lover, and was looking for a furry friend to keep him company. As he knows, life is full of surprises, and come to find out, his new companion, Cody, had a host of medical problems, and needed to take medication to control her seizures. Instead of returning Cody to the animal shelter (something I very well might have done) he has embraced his role as caretaker. Whether we have OCD or not, I believe this experience of putting another’s needs ahead of our own is so worthwhile; focusing outward instead of inward can give us a different perspective.
So it works both ways. We take care of our pets, and our pets take care of us. They often force us to slow down our lives, make us laugh, and give us unconditional love. And for those who are suffering, they provide the much-needed comfort and serenity that can’t be found elsewhere.