themighty logo

The Benefits of Having Pets When You Live With a Chronic Illness

I’ve been spending some time recently thinking about how to stay positive when living with a chronic illness and one of the first things that sprung to my mind was having a pet. Having a pet can help reduce your blood pressure and loneliness. I know there have been studies into how animals can help with health conditions, and you can see this in programs where animals are taken into hospitals for the patients/residents to pet to calm them and make them happy, and horses being used as therapy for people with disabilities. Lots of chronic illness bloggers write about their pets and I know I post about my cute cat Billy lots, so here is what I see as being the benefits of pet ownership when you have a chronic illness.

1. Unconditional Love

I know dogs are more obvious about this but cats, horses, Guinea pigs and I’m sure other pets also provide the unconditional love that is such a benefit when you are struggling with a health condition every day. It’s great having something waiting for you when you get home if you live alone and stops me from feeling lonely sometimes as I talk away to my cat. Cuddles, doggy kisses, and something that is actually excited to see you can make your day, or just make you smile.

When I’m looking after my sister’s animals I get cuddles from the dogs and one of her ponies! Looking out over the on the ponies field with dogs at my feet is just lovely! My cat stands at the door and cries when I get home, then she runs to a bit on the stairs where she can rub heads with me as I get up the stairs. My neighbor has told me that she only does that when I get home, so she knows it’s me. Plus she cries to say hello and rubs against my legs in the morning, almost tripping me up, but I know she’s pleased to see me. I’m convinced she can tell when I’m feeling bad and always comes to give me cuddles and has started sleeping on my bed recently and not waking me up in the middle of the night, but I’ll see how long that lasts!

2. Responsibility

black and white photo of woman with a black and white cat on her chest
Victoria and Billy

Living alone with a chronic illness means that I rarely have to get up for things. I plan activities into my diary so I’m doing something everyday, but even when I’m feeling horrific I still have to get up and feed the cat, make sure she’s got water and give her her treats at night time so she stops crying. People who are housebound or who often have days when they can’t get out are forced to get up off the sofa/out of bed and see to the pet. Even just feeding a cat/hamster or letting a dog out for its business is a little bit of exercise which is a good thing for our bodies.

Having to look after another living thing can be a huge benefit when dealing with the mental health side of chronic illness as you have something else that’s alive to keep alive. During my struggles with depression I’ve thankfully steered away from suicide, but on my darkest occasion I took my sister’s dog for a walk and came back because I couldn’t bear the thought of anything happening to him if I made that decision. When I was an employment advisor I had a client who was struggling with severe depression, but she told me that it was her pets that kept her alive as she knew she had to look after them, and they made her feel more hopeful about the future.

3. Socializing

Whether it’s in real life or online, people with pets tend to talk about them and bond over them. Most people will be able to say if they are a dog or a cat person and have an opinion about it, making it an easy way to start a conversation with someone and make new friends. Dog and horse owners will generally speak to each other when they pass while out for a walk, some areas even have unofficial dog walking groups where people just see the same faces every morning/evening so they become friendly. Kids will usually speak to you if you have an animal with you, and puppies can get more attention than babies when you take them out!

If I’m house and animal sitting for my sister I love it if I’m having a day when I can take the dogs out (even if it’s just for five minutes). It gets me into the fresh air, get a bit of exercise, and there are always people around who’ll smile and say hello and stop to chat. Online you can join groups, post pictures and chat about your beloved pets and how they help you thus gaining more friends, increasing happiness and giving you something else to do/focus on if you are stuck in the house.

4. Structure

Having structure can be a huge benefit for those living with a chronic illness. My occupational therapist and sleep specialist both said that going to bed and getting up at the same time every day is a good thing and can support better sleep, so having a pet to get up for can help you to do this. My cat knows when it’s bedtime and she comes into the living room for her night time treats. Dogs will usually get up at the same time everyday and having to feed and exercise pets can give structure to your day. 

5. Self Care

Pets also remind us to look after ourselves. Running out of pet food means a trip to the shop or an online grocery order which will mean that you get essentials for yourself as well. Making sure that your dog gets out every day means you get out every day, supporting positive mental health and a bit of exercise. No matter how small the pet they all need something from us, which reminds us that we also need things and might need someone to look after us occasionally and support us asking for help. Animals are also brilliant at resting and I am trying to take some tips from Billy in this area (I think I should have been a cat in a previous life) but dogs are also great at resting when they need to. My sister’s Jack Russell will play with her son for hours, then when she gets tired she’ll take herself off and go to bed and rest until she feels up to a bit of play again. We should all take a page out of the book of our pets and take the time to prioritize resting, to do it wholeheartedly and then get back into things when we can.

There are also downsides to animal ownership, so I’ll share my struggles:

1. Having to look after something else

When I can’t walk to the toilet I still have to feed the cat. Ensuring that she is looked after uses some of my energy that on very bad days I should be using to feed myself or do other essential tasks. Having a dog or other bigger pet is much more exhausting. I don’t have to walk Billy a couple of times a day, her litter tray can stay uncleared for a day or two and she doesn’t need to be entertained. Dogs and horses need loads of attention, exercise, training and cleaning up after. The most that I have to do is feed her, cleaning up cat litter that’s been kicked all over the floor, or vacuuming up hair can be left because I live by myself. If you’ve got kids as well, then these things have to be cleaned up straight away and make even small pets more of a job than a joy sometimes.

2. Financial

Having a pet is expensive. From buying it in the first place, even rescue pets are expensive these days, to food and other essentials including insurance, microchipping and vet bills. What happens to them when you’re on holiday, or too ill to look after them? Dogs need leads, collars, bedding, cages, car seat belts, reflectors for dark walks, poop bags, toys… and those are just things that I can think of! Some of these expenses are regular and lifelong, and some are less frequent, but you still need to be able to pay for your pet and with the expense of living with a chronic illness this can be outside of your budget. I buy food, litter and pay for insurance for Billy and I could spend that money on other things, but I prioritize having her in my life so I cut out other things.

You can borrow people’s dogs to take them for walks or look after them for holidays on websites such as Borrow My Doggy which can cut down on expense, or borrow pets belonging to friends and family members. I love going to my sister’s house to get cuddles from her friendly pony, play with the dogs and then they lie on me for cuddles when I’m tired. Even the Guinea pigs make me smile because they make cute little noises.

3. Who helps to look after them?

When I go on holiday or away for a couple of days I can take my cat to my sister’s house to stay — she has to be limited to a room as one of the dogs wants to eat her, but my nephew loves her and gives her lots of cuddles and treats. I also have a friend who very kindly goes to feed her for me even though he is allergic to her! This isn’t too much of a problem for me, but can be for lots of other people. Do you have a friend or family member who will look after your pet for you if you’re away, in the hospital, or just too sick to look after them? Can you afford to put them into kennels, or get a dog sitter or walker? Small animals like hamsters and Guinea pigs can be easier to get looked after for you as they are easily transportable, dogs, cats, horses and other pets can be more difficult, so make sure you’ve thought this through before you commit to a pet.

I can only come up with three downsides to pet ownership and I know that I get so much from having my gorgeous cat, even though it can be hard work and creates extra tasks for me to do every day. I know animals can save your life and give you the will to carry on even when times are really tough, and I know the unconditional love you get from a pet can make the bad days seem much better, so I’m all for pet ownership when you are living with a chronic illness. Just make sure you get the right animal for you and that you have support in place to help you when you need it.

Let me know about your pets! What have they helped you through?

This blog was originally published on The Amazing Adventures of a Stick Girl.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.