Digital content creator Priya Suman has been living alone in Saket, Delhi, for a few years now. Her pet Mowgli—a dog she rescued from the streets when he was barely a month old—keeps her company and is her best friend. “In the last two years, going out had dwindled to the bare minimum. It has only been this year that I have started stepping out regularly. Earlier, the fact that I was mostly stuck at home and even friends or family would rarely visit would sometimes depress me. Also, my work was not going well. That was stressful too,” she remembers.
But Mowgli knew how to keep his friend happy and keep the dark thoughts at bay. “I would play with him, take him on long walks. I even experimented in the kitchen—cooking for Mowgli and me. He kept me sane during my periods of loneliness and depression. On days I would not want to leave the bed, I had to pick myself up as I had to feed Mowgli and take him for his walk. Alone, I would have given up and drowned in self-pity. But Mowgli kept me on my feet and helped me from falling into the abyss,” says the 28-year-old, adding, “Having Mowgli in my life is the best gift I have given myself.”
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Pets have a big role to play in our lives—especially in our mental wellbeing. They provide companionship and reduce feelings of loneliness. For most, they also encourage healthy and social activities such as going out for walks and building a like-minded social circle. This is especially true in these times of remote working for many people—more so for those who live alone—pets make up for the loss of daily social interaction in the office.
Shilpi Majumder, a Kolkata-based clinical psychologist, says, “Pets simply make us happier and a tad more humane. They drive away loneliness and depression. With them around, our spirits are automatically lifted, and their unconditional love is the best support system one can ask for in times of need. Mentally having pets around is also very relaxing. Seeing your dog wag its tail—the excited-until-I’ll-explode welcome—can immediately de-stress you. And the fact that we know our pets depend on us just like a child would make us more empathetic as human beings. A simple act of patting a pet can help reduce stress and lower the heart rate. Also, pets require a routine of feeding, cleaning and exercise. This in itself can act as a motivator for people and lift them out of their depression.”
A 2020 study—jointly done by the University of York and the University of Lincoln in the UK—found that having a pet was linked to maintaining better mental health and reducing loneliness. The study also found that the strength of the human-animal bond did not differ significantly between species, with the most common pets being cats and dogs, followed by small mammals and fish. More than 90 per cent of respondents said their pet helped them cope emotionally, and 96 per cent said their pet helped keep them fit and active.
Pune-based Manan Varghese remembers a time last year when he was going through a low phase in life after the sudden demise of his mother, followed by a break-up with his partner of six years. “It was perhaps the most traumatic period of my life. Nothing could cheer me up. I have had a parakeet for a pet for the last 10-odd years—since my final year of MBA. Now, parakeets are very temperamental birds and sensitive too. They require a lot of play time to remain happy,” Varghese says. Needless to add, even when he was feeling down in the dumps, he would have to step up to entertain and care for his pet. “It was hard. When I didn’t have anything to smile about, I had to play and keep Ivy happy. It would sometimes seem like a chore. But I had to push myself for the sake of my pet. And slowly, that healed me. People think only the dogs can help you emotionally, but believe me, an exuberant pet that requires lots of attention and can also talk nineteen to the dozen may just be the right medicine you need in times of despair,” he says with a smile.
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Most pet owners talk about the immediate joys that come with companion animals. Some also acknowledge the physical benefits. But mental health benefits largely go unnoticed. “Pets have the innate quality of being acutely attuned to human behaviour and emotions. Dogs, for example, can interpret our tone of voice, body language, and gestures. And like any good friend, they would look into your eyes to gauge your emotional state. Pets, especially dogs and cats, can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and playfulness, and even improve your cardiovascular health. Birds can cheer you up with their chirpiness. Caring for an animal can help children grow up more secure, responsible and active. Pets also provide valuable companionship for older adults,” says Mumbai-based psychiatrist Nilesh Naphade.
To keep mental illness at bay, sometimes all that is needed is to have someone to love you unconditionally, promise always to be there, listen to your feelings, and never take you for granted. Pets fulfil the criteria. However, people must appreciate their pets’ needs too. Pets don’t ask for much, and they can teach you a thing or two about living in the moment, being optimistic and enjoying what life throws at you and welcoming each day with full-throttle energy. “Mowgli has taught me to embrace life with unconditional love,” says Suman.