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Pets For Mental Health

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

When Marina Collins gave birth to her son Lincoln six years ago by caesarean sectionshe suffered a rare anaphylactic shock reaction to one of her pre-med drugs, went into cardiac arrest and was pronounced clinically dead.

Minutes passed as staff at the Royal Brisbane hospital desperately attempted to revive her.  Marina lay in a coma for the next week.

Everything changed at that moment for Marina.  “I wanted to focus more on what I loved doing,” Marina, 33, said. “I had worked in mental health for ten years but the other thing I loved was animals and I wanted to bring the two of them together.”

So she set up Paws for Therapy on Bribie Island in Queensland. Her therapy dogs are Nitro, a bull Arab breed, and Honey Child, a toy poodle.Nitro after nine months of training was awarded a Trick Title Certificate and is now working on obtaining his Gold Canine Good Citizen award.

“If I had ended up with brain damage when I had my cardiac arrest I would have wanted an animal there,” she said. “It would have comforted me in some way.”

Marina offers Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), which is widespread and well researched in Europe and North America but less so in Australia. In AAT a trained animal or pet is used as a form of treatment and a therapeutic regime is set up under professional supervision specifically tailored to an individual’s physical, social and emotional needs.

Today 3 million Australians live with depression or anxiety and almost half of all Australians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime.

According to the Black Dog Institute, which specialises in the treatment and prevention of mood disorders, the most common mental illnesses are depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorder. The three types of mental illnesses often occur in combination.

But Australia is not alone. World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics show that globally about 400 million people of all ages suffer from depression, with more women affected than men.By 2030 depressionis projected to be the leading cause of disability-adjusted life(DALY’s), a system that calculates the years of healthy life lost due to an illness.

At least six Australians commit suicide every day with a further 30 people attempting to take their own life. According to Lifeline, a national charity for crisis support, more than one new attempt occurs every 10 minutes and an estimated 1000 people have daily thoughts of suicide.

Depression and anxiety reduce in those who spend time with pets. With 20 per cent fewer visits to the doctor, less medication prescribed, lower cholesterol blood pressure readings and quicker recovery after illness and surgery pet lovers are able to deal with stressful situations better.

Maria Harris’ depression first became obvious at age five.  With her school years about to commence, Maria’s mother Lynn told her daughterin a detached waythat her twin sister had died six hours after their premature birth. For six weeks Maria was kept alive in a humidicrib deprived ofany form of human touch.Her mother immobilised with grieve had little love to give her.

Her first thought on hearing the news was that she should have died with her sister.

“School was so hard. I was shy and lacked confidence. Sometimes I just felt like a zombie,” she said.

Maria continues to suffer from bouts of depression. With her lows come feelings of unworthiness, despair and sometimes a desire to commit suicide. A heavy cloud descends leaving her empty of hope and full of self-hate and self-recrimination with seemingly no way out she said.

Butsome respite has come from a surprising quarter.

“My huge breakthrough came when I had animals to care for and with whom I developed a two way relationship.”

Bennie, a light brown Tonkinese male cat with a chocolate face, has physically blocked Maria and stared her out on days she wanted to overdose. And her slighter female cat Gracie drapes herself over Maria when her moods darken.

Being responsible for a pet brings with it accountability for another life. People with pets appear less likely to follow through with suicidal ideations.

It appears that there maybe another fascinating reason for the profoundly positive effect that a pet can have on a person’s mental health.

Scientist Dr Rupert Sheldrake in his book “Dogs that know when their owners are coming home” talks of invisible interconnections between animals and humans, between pets and their owners.

“Many dogs, cats and other pets can pick up people’s intentions miles away. They can find their way home over unfamiliar terrain without maps and artificial aids. And they can have forebodings of earthquakes and provide warnings, even though most humans feel nothing and have no idea when an earthquake will strike.”

Much information in Dr Sheldrake’s book is based on sound scientific research and experiments as well as keen observation. He cites reports of cats responding to a particular person that they are close telephoning before the receiver is picked up.

It appears that animals can pick up when something is wrong even at distance and respond in a way that can not only relieve mental stress and illness but potentially save human life.


For more information on animal assisted intervention visit, Paws for Therapy, Delta Society Australiaand Lead the Way. Support programmes and groups for depression and other mental illness include Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia, Beyond the Blue, The Black Dog Instituteand Lifeline. Other relevant websites areAnimal Welfare League AustraliaandPet Rescue.

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