Pets are very important to trauma survivors for a variety of reasons:
A place to express love, affection, and tenderness
Many abuse survivors have difficulties with attachment issues due their extensive histories of trauma, abuse, and neglect. Because people were the perpetrators, trauma survivors frequently find it difficult and complicated to express caring and affection to other people.
And yet, many survivors can still feel loving connections, and they have the desire to appropriately express that.
Animals and pets feel safer for bonding than people, and because of that added safety, animals can become the positive target audience for the survivor’s feelings of love, affection, and tenderness. Sometimes it just feels good to be able to hug a cat!
An acceptable substitution for maternal instincts
Many trauma survivors do not have children, or are not with their children, or do not want to have children, or cannot have children, are not ready for children, etc. However, being away from children does not eliminate maternal feelings and maternal instincts (or paternal feelings and paternal instincts). Many survivors purposefully choose to have a variety of pets and animals as an appropriate substitution for children.
Some survivors will purposefully get pets to learn how to nurture and care for others prior to having children.
If you can’t manage taking care of animals, you won’t be able to tend properly to children.
An exercise companion
Trauma survivors, like any other group in the population, have difficulties getting proper exercise.
Plus, having significantly increased levels of depression, fatigue, social anxiety, fears, phobias, obesity, body image issues, etc. can make it even more difficult for trauma survivors to exercise.
Having a dog to walk or a horse to ride can make exercising less stressful, less scary, and much more fun.
Assistance with safety and security
Some pets can provide safety in the obvious ways, such as trained dogs helping to guard the home. For trauma survivors who frequently live in chronic fear of abusers, the assistance of a guard dog can be very comforting.
In addition, animals can help to provide a sense of daily grounding from internal fears, dreams, flashbacks, etc. If the cats are still sleeping peacefully, the confused survivor can be more assured that the emotional disturbance was internal, not external.
Feeling safe and secure is fundamentally important for trauma survivors, and pets can play a monumental role on this level.
Assistance with social situations
Social service dogs and horses are trained companions for social situations with anxious trauma survivors. These animals are excellent assistants, and have been found very helpful for many people. The service animal helps the survivor to have the confidence needed to venture out into the world and not be excessively housebound.
Regular pets can serve that same function on a smaller scope, even if these uncertified pets are not qualified to go into stores, in public buildings, on planes, etc.
Being out in the world with a cute puppy provides:
- an immediate distraction and interest for other people (putting the focus more on the puppy than the survivor)
- a comfortable starting place for conversation (many people will ask about the puppy first)
- a physical barrier between the survivor and other people, creating more physical distance and a greater sense of emotional safety (when the puppy stands or sits in front of the survivor)
- a valid, less questioned excuse for the survivor to leave uncomfortable social situations (ie: stating the puppy needs to go outside now).
Companionship, friendship, someone to talk to
Many trauma survivors live alone, or feel very alone even when they live amongst others. Most dissociative survivors have an extensive history of strained or unhealthy or abusive social relationships. Making and keeping friends is not easy, especially for survivors with issues such as borderline personality disorder and chronic self-injury issues.
Having their own pet provides that special someone they can talk to, even if it is difficult to talk to people. Dogs and cats can be the very best friends, and their companionship is invaluable. They help survivors to not feel alone, and to not be alone.
How can survivors feel alone when a puppy follows them all around the house, from room to room to room?
Entertainment and Humor
Laughter is the best medicine, and most pets provide a variety of humorous situations to lighten even the darkest of moods.
Who can resist smiling and laughing at the antics of an energetic kitten rolling around tangled up in string or a puppy flopping around after a bouncy ball?
Pets very much have their own personality – the more survivors enjoy the liveliness of their pets, the better. Smiles and spontaneous laughter adds to the quality of life for anyone.
Learning how to bond, connect, attach
Dissociative trauma survivors with severe abuse histories often find it extremely difficult to attach to other people. In survivors’ experiences, most people have been abusive, neglectful, or uninterested in them. Trauma makes it very hard to bond, and many DID survivors did not bond with anyone for years of their life. Or sometimes, the only bond felt is a damaging trauma bond with a perpetrator.
Having a pet can be the first experience in positive unconditional bonding with a loved one. Experiencing affection and warm connection from a pet can have great meaning to an isolated, lonely trauma survivor.
Learning how to take care of someone outside of themselves
Some trauma survivors have experienced such damage from their abusive, neglectful childhood upbringing that they genuinely lack the skills in tending to others. Especially in homes where neglect was prominent, basic living skills would have been overlooked.
Having a pet can be the first experience in learning how to tend to the needs of the self and others.
Also, for survivors that are excessively self-involved and self-absorbed, having a pet can teach them to look beyond their own needs.
Provide a variety of medical benefits
Research has shown that pets have a positive impact on medical health, mental health, and reducing stress. Pets help to lower cholesterol and triglycerides, reduce blood pressure, increase life expectancy after heart attacks, reduce the need for prescription medications, reduce the number of medical appointments, etc. Pets can be trained to help with seizures, help with Parkinson’s Disease, diagnose cancer, and watch for low blood sugar.
People with pets have improved health!
Help with depression and low self-esteem
Pets help to fight depression and low self-esteem. Pets help survivors to feel important and to be recognized as valuable, worthy people.
Walking in the door to a pet that is really genuinely happy to see you makes for a corrective emotional experience for many trauma survivors who have felt ignored, unimportant, unnoticed, unworthy, etc.
Provide joy and happiness
Chronic emotional pain is intense for dissociative trauma survivors. Heartbreak, anguish, grief, profound sadness, and emptiness are frequent feelings. Pets can bring a sense of joy and happiness into the survivor’s life, helping to lift depression, and actually letting the survivors experience moments of joy and happiness.
To feel loved, accepted, cared for
All too many trauma survivors have grown up feeling unloved, unwanted, uncared for, unappreciated, etc. This leaves a hole in the heart that just doesn’t go away.
Pets help survivors to have the emotional experience of being loved and unconditionally cared for. Pets don’t leave just because their survivors are down, depressed, messy, messing up, or dysfunctional. Pets stay loyal to their survivors, and continue to express long-term, loving devotion even through difficult times when people are not be willing to be there.
To feel understood
Pets can listen with their hearts.
They can read the emotional state of their survivors with an uncanny ability. They know when their survivors are hurting, or angry, or afraid. Pets can respond in natural ways to these emotions, and provide a level of understanding that doesn’t require words.
Pets can tell when dissociative trauma survivors switch from one part to the other.
There are many reasons why they say “dogs are man’s best friend”.
Pets are wonderful.
I hope you enjoy your precious fur babies as much as I enjoy mine.
I wouldn’t want a day without them!
Copyright © 2008-2021 Kathy Broady MSW and Discussing Dissociation