How Your Bond With Your Pets Affects Their Emotional Health
Pets and Emotion
Animals are affected by our ongoing feelings and states of mind, particularly those of the people with whom they are most bonded. Most dogs and cats form a strong emotional connection with the people they depend on for food, shelter, safety, and affection. That's why they so readily tune in to our emotional cues.
Except perhaps for a few brief verbal commands or names, animals rely completely on the emotional messages communicated by our posture, tone of voice, facial expressions, and, well, just plain feelings in the air, which are like an emotional climate that may be generally sunny or cloudy, mild or extreme. Shorter-term feelings are more like today's weather.
Smell is a primary sense for dogs and cats. Just as we might detect a subtle smell in the air when rain is on the way, they can easily detect stress chemicals your body emits when you are upset. It tells them something is wrong but they may not understand why. Say you are feeling anxious and you are broadcasting some level of fear. They sense there is something to be afraid of, but what?
Imagine yourself in that situation. The same thing happens to us as young children. Say your parents are anxious, whether or not it’s warranted. It's like they are saying, "Watch out, there is something bad coming!" Wouldn't you be looking for it all the time? Get a little jumpy?
Dogs and cats often soak up angry, sad, or fearful feelings from family members upset over issues that have nothing to do with them
That is what happens for animals. They don't know that you were just unfriended on Facebook. They may imagine there is a dangerous predator or intruder out there. So if a random pedestrian strolls by (like me?), they run out and bark their heads off. They sense there is danger afoot and their job is to protect your home.
In the same way, dogs and cats often soak up angry, sad, or fearful feelings from family members upset over issues that have nothing to do with them. Frequent arguments are especially stressful for animals, who may react with irritability or fear. Emotional tensions can trigger issues that have a behavioral component, such as increased aggressiveness, destructiveness, or extreme restlessness. Or, they might impact the nervous system and contribute to irritated skin, ears, bladder, and the like.
Just like animals suffering from losses and changes, a chronically emotionally stressed animal who has a predisposition to skin or bladder problems, for example, might scratch or urinate still more. This in turn will further irritate the tissues and create a vicious cycle. Whatever discomfort is already there becomes more noticeable and annoying when the emotional pitch is heightened.
Anxiety About Our Animals
Sometimes the anxiety a person broadcasts is actually about the animal herself. Say you become upset on seeing something about your dog or cat that does not seem right. Whether it's a behavioral change or a physical symptom, your mind launches into a whole imagined scenario—the terrible diagnosis, the ineffective treatment, the euthanasia, the loss of your friend.
Your animal senses this anxiety, particularly when it is directed toward her. Something must be wrong! Your fears only increase her own anxiety, which may already be heightened by the discomfort of any developing illness. She may even begin to hide.
Not only will fear and stress from this danger signal diminish your animal's capacity to heal, but they can also affect effective treatment. Clients have often told me that, acting from fear or a sense of urgency, they made decisions that they later regretted. For example, when animals get tumors or cancers, clients often feel under tremendous pressure to have the growths immediately removed, as though every passing hour were critical. But there is no evidence to support such urgency. In fact, the stress of the surgery can make the animal even more difficult to treat using less drastic and more natural methods.
True healing of chronic disease requires, above all, patience
Similarly, concern about a bout of intense scratching from skin allergies can drive clients to get corticosteroids and undo several weeks of progress from nutritional and homeopathic treatment.
True healing of chronic disease requires, above all, patience. The desire for immediate relief is very seductive. That's the appeal of using strong drugs to control symptoms. But, since they don't actually cure the underlying ailment, the illness recurs, gradually worsening over time or taking a different and more difficult form.
Excessive anxiety can also push people to jump from one veterinarian or treatment to the next, whether conventional or holistic. This can overwhelm and confuse your pet's body, never allowing any one method a chance to work. On the flip side, worry and discouragement can lead people to give up on medical treatment without really trying.
I know this is a challenge. Understandably, you don't want to stay with a treatment that is not working, yet you don't want to jump ship before giving it a chance. The best advice I can give is the understanding that true healing of the body takes time. It took time to get where it is, and it will take time to undo the damage.
Even our own illness may affect our pet's health in ways we don't quite understand. Veterinarians often see cases in which pets develop the same problems as the people they live with, at a frequency seemingly beyond coincidence.
Many experiments and anecdotes attest to a mysterious, seemingly extrasensory connection between animals and people
Why would this be? It could, of course, indicate a common toxin or other agent in the home environment. But it's also possible that the strong bond between some pets and people can create a kind of sympathetic resonance, akin to "catching" a yawn or the urge to scratch from someone nearby.
Many experiments and anecdotes attest to a mysterious, seemingly extrasensory connection between animals and people. So it is not surprising that the same health problem is often shared between a person and an animal. If you see this happening with you and your animal, it's worth contemplating, perhaps even exploring any underlying psychological beliefs and emotions that may accompany your own condition. That is often helpful in human health and could radiate out to help heal your animals as well.
There is much we still need to learn. Yet, as many now understand, the intention to be well, along with faith in the healing capacity of nature, life, the universe, God—however you conceive of that—are central to all healing.
Based on excerpts from Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Catsby Dr. Richard H Pitcairn, with the permission of Rodale Press. Copyright © 2005.
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