Spend time with your pet. The way you do this will depend on the type of pet you have, but engaging in enriching activities with your pet regularly will not only strengthen your bond but will also make your pet’s life better. A stronger bond can lead to a number of mental health benefits, such as reduced stress and anxiety, increased mood, and improved social skills.
Pets have always been more than just companions; they play a pivotal role in enhancing our mental well-being. From the unconditional love of a dog to the calming presence of a cat, pets have a unique way of alleviating stress, anxiety, and loneliness. But how do we truly harness the therapeutic potential of our furry, feathered, or scaled friends? How can they aid in promoting mindfulness, reducing depression, or even enhancing social interactions? In this interview series, we are talking to veterinarians, psychologists, therapists, pet trainers, and other experts who can shed light on how to maximize the mental health benefits of having a pet. As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Elizabeth Shuler.
Dr. Elizabeth Shuler, also known as Liz, is a transformational mind-body coach, yoga therapist, and Reiki Master with over 14 years of experience. Since 2015, she has lived abroad in Jordan, China, and Belgium, where she has gained a unique perspective on the challenges and opportunities that people face when living and working abroad. Liz’s coaching approach is holistic and integrative, drawing on her expertise in Yoga, Ayurveda, Reiki, and Psychology. She creates a safe and supportive space for her clients to explore their inner landscapes and discover their own path to healing and transformation.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?
Igrew up in Cody, Wyoming, right outside of Yellowstone National Park. Growing up with so much nature around me really inspired my curiosity about the universe, people, and wellbeing. I was always a learner, researching, reading, or going out to find answers for myself. At the same time, I grew up pretty poor and had my fair share of challenges and traumas growing up. Like many healers, I harnessed these struggles to hopefully help others not have to go through the same things I did. Between my wounds and my curiosity, psychology and yoga seemed to be a perfect fit!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I have worked in many different settings throughout the years and this, paired with working internationally, creates a lot of interesting stories. The most interesting story I can think of — that isn’t confidential — is how I found my clinical supervisor. My partner and I had moved to Amman, Jordan for his work. I was provisionally licensed as a mental health counselor and needed a supervisor to help me gain hours to become fully licensed. From a conversation in a bar I met a group of mental health professionals in the area. That group led me to a woman who was also from Wyoming and had the qualifications to be my supervisor. The kicker? Her name is Elizabeth, as well! It was so serendipitous and so unexpected. We are still friends and colleagues to this day!
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The books that made the most impact on me growing up were the works of Tolkien, specifically The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The way that all of the main characters in the books took on huge burdens in order to make the world a better place was always inspiring to me. I think this quote from LOTR sums it up for me: “…But you know well enough now that starting is too great a claim for any, and that only a small part is played in great deeds by any hero.” I loved that the central tenant of the books wasn’t that the mightiest of warriors or the highest of magical beings that saved the world, but the people who loved each other enough to put themselves in danger for a better world.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Can you share a personal story about how a pet has helped you or someone you know to improve mental wellness?
I have had animals around me all of my life. My first job in high school was rehabilitating and training abused and neglected horses. I learned early on that animals have a way of helping us be present in a way that is healing. Horses did that for me when I was in Wyoming. As I’ve moved abroad, dogs and cats have filled that role. My last dog, Grimm, had an uncanny ability to sense the person in the room who needed comfort the most and he did his best to be cuddly, even though he was a huge, boney greyhound. I’ve seen multiple clients who were able to be present in a session with very difficult emotions because they were stroking a pet or a therapy animal.
While human interaction is essential for emotional well-being, in what ways do interactions with pets offer unique benefits that human relationships might not provide?
Pets are more than just our companions; they can also have a profound impact on our health and well-being. Studies have shown that having pets can reduce depression and loneliness, enhance social skills and interaction, decrease anxiety, promote physical activity, and even protect against cardiovascular diseases and PTSD.
Can you explain how this works? How do pets, particularly common ones like dogs and cats, biologically and psychologically help to alleviate human stress levels and anxieties?
There are a few mechanisms that studies have examined to explain why pets help us feel better. Hormonal changes, exercise, and socialization are just a few of these mechanisms.
Firstly, petting a dog or cat can release oxytocin, a hormone that has calming and mood-boosting effects. Pets can also provide a sense of comfort and security, which can help to reduce stress and anxiety. These stress reducing effects can also help reduce inflammation and other physical health issues. We know that stress is a major factor in many chronic mental and physical diseases, so this is a major factor in how pets increase human wellbeing. Pets also promote physical activity because many pets, such as dogs, need regular exercise. Taking your dog for walks or playing fetch is a great way to get some exercise and fresh air. As for socialization, pets can be a great conversation starter and can help us meet new people. For example, taking your dog to the park is a great way to meet other dog owners and make new friends. On a similar note, pets actually help teach compassion and empathy. Pets rely on us for their care and well-being, which can help us to develop compassion and empathy for others, both human and non-human. For those living alone, pets provide companionship. Pets can be a great source of companionship and unconditional love when we feel isolated or alone. Last, but not least, pets have an uncanny ability to bring us into the present. When we are interacting with our pets, we need to be fully present and aware of their needs and wants as well as our own internal states. This can help us increase our own self-awareness and mindfulness.
In the backdrop of global events like pandemics or natural disasters, how have you seen pets playing a role in alleviating anxiety and providing comfort? Can you share some instances where pets have been integrated into therapeutic practices? How do they complement traditional therapeutic techniques?
There is research that suggests that pets not only are helpful for staying calm during natural disasters, but also help prevent or alleviate PTSD in the long-term after a natural disaster. It is for this reason that pet evacuations and rescues are starting to be taken more seriously during disasters.
Animal assisted therapy has been around for a while. The most well-known is probably equine therapy, but other animals such as dogs and cats are also utilized in these types of interventions. Equine assisted therapy is often implemented for the treatment of autism or for those who may benefit from alternative physical therapy. Many mental health clinicians also utilize therapy animals in their practices, such as dogs and cats, that can help clients feel more at ease and more present during the session. Animal assisted therapy has been shown to be at least as effective as other well-known mental health interventions such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and there is some evidence that it may work better due to things like increased treatment adherence.
Not all pets are dogs or cats. From birds to fish to reptiles, how can individuals choose the right pet that aligns with their mental health needs?
While dogs, cats, and horses may seem to be the most popular animals for AAT, other animals can be beneficial for different needs. Snakes and reptiles can help with phobias, confidence, and even to get people talking due to the lack of judgement people feel from them. Millipedes can help with sensory issues and tortoises can help people come out of their shells. Many centers that provide animal assisted therapy have a range of animals for different needs, like Critterish Allsorts in the UK. The type of animal you choose to own or to interact with depends on what you want or need to get out of the interactions. Talking to someone who is familiar with AAT and with you can make sure you make a decision that is right for you and the animals.
How does the act of taking care of a pet — feeding, grooming, exercising — contribute to an individual’s sense of purpose and mental well-being?
Like we discussed, taking care of an animal has a myriad of benefits. It can teach empathy, compassion, and responsibility. Pets can help us get exercise — even cats need to play and you can get some good movement in with them.
Taking care of a pet also creates a stronger bond and connection, which can be really helpful in combating loneliness and isolation. It can also give us a great sense of purpose and self-confidence. Taking care of another living being is a great responsibility. When you work hard to take care of an animal it really boosts your self-image. This is why care of pets can also help those with depression have motivation to take care of their animals, even when they don’t have motivation to take care of themselves.
The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. From your experience or research, what are your “Five Ways To Maximize the Mental Health Benefits of Having a Pet?” Can you please share a story or example for each?
1 . Choose the right pet for you. Not all pets are right for every person. Dogs, for example, tend to be more social and require more exercise, which can be good for people looking to get out more. Cats, on the other hand, are more independent and can be a good choice for people who are looking for a more home-body pet.
For example: I love horses. However, I have moved internationally 3 times in the last 8 years. This is not a great environment for horses. Instead, I choose dogs or cats that I know will be secure enough to move and be ok in an apartment rather than a house.
2 . Spend time with your pet. The way you do this will depend on the type of pet you have, but engaging in enriching activities with your pet regularly will not only strengthen your bond but will also make your pet’s life better. A stronger bond can lead to a number of mental health benefits, such as reduced stress and anxiety, increased mood, and improved social skills.
My cats are cuddlers. They love a soft, warm couch with a blanket and a person. However, they also love to run around like furry tornadoes. Playing with them helps to keep them from destroying the laundry basket and gives us quality time together. My cats ask for play time — sometimes very insistently — and it is always time well spent.
3 . Train your pet, as necessary. Obviously, this will be truer for some types of pets than others. However, for many types of animals, training can help to reduce stress and frustration and strengthen your connection. Training also promotes trust and respect between you and your pet. Even just feeding your pet at the same time every day can be a form of training and connection.
Even my rescue cats get trained! I have two currently and one is easier than the other. Sif sits, targets, and is learning to do high-fives for treats. Crowley, on the other hand, is being trained not to yowl for attention and is not food motivated. While we are training both, we have to adapt how and what we train to the individual animal to make it meaningful for all of us. In the end, it means we all have a better relationship — and less yowling.
4 . Cuddle with or talk to your pet. Studies have shown that petting an animal can release oxytocin, a hormone that has calming and mood-boosting effects. If you cannot cuddle or stroke your pet often — some reptiles or insects might be less inclined to cuddles — talking to them can help you to feel more connected and less alone.
Have you ever seen the therapy dogs that go to the hospital to comfort patients? If you haven’t, watch a video and see how different the patients are before, during, and after the animal visit. It is sometimes almost miraculous the changes you can see immediately. The hospital knows that cuddling or stroking an animal can lower stress, pain, and anxiety for those who are in a scary and sometimes painful place. The same can be true for you with your pets at home. Try not to take them for granted, even during busy or stressful times. Your pets can be a huge asset.
5 . Get involved in pet-related activities. There are many ways to get involved in pet-related activities, such as volunteering at a local animal shelter, joining a pet club, or simply chatting with neighbors during walks. Engaging in social activities with other pet owners to enhance your social support network. Social interactions can reduce feelings of isolation and provide a sense of belonging. This can help you to meet other pet owners, make new friends, and learn how to better support your pets.
My greyhound was amazing at helping us meet new people. We would go to the dog park to let him run and play. Instead, he would sniff out all the people whose dogs were off playing and solicit pets and cuddles. He didn’t want to play with other dogs — he was above that — but he definitely wanted human attention. Extracting him from people always ended up in lots of chit chat and sometimes, new friends. While this might be difficult with some of the less mobile pets, you can always find others who enjoy your animals as much as you do, whether that is at an animal shelter, a club, or a pet show.
The loss of a pet can be deeply traumatic. How can individuals navigate this grief, and how does it compare to other forms of loss in terms of mental health impact?
The grief process is no different for pets than for any other loss. While for some it may seem trivial, the loss of a pet is the loss of a family member for many and should be treated as such. The best thing is to allow yourself to grieve. This can be easier said than done in our world today, but taking the time you need to feel the sadness, the anger, and the mixture of feelings that comes up is necessary for healthy processing. Grief will look different for everyone, so do not hold yourself to any set timeline or progression. It might take months to feel anywhere near normal again, and that is ok. If you find yourself slipping into a depression that seems like more than grief, it can be helpful to reach out to a grief therapist to help.
When I lost my greyhound, Grimm, a year and a half ago it was very traumatic. He was my therapy dog and my companion from the US to Jordan to China. He helped me find balance when work sucked and was a joyful, playful companion. I was lucky that he passed on a Thursday, and I was able to take that Friday off. I used that time to be heartbroken. It took me two months to feel like the sadness was not an everyday feeling, but like all grief, I still feel it. I am tearing up as I talk about him now and I will tear up when talking about him in two, five, probably ten years. But I don’t tear up every time I think about him and I don’t think about him all the time. He will always be with me, but his loss is not the only thing I think about. That is the healthy progression of grief.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of peace to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
Ah, thank you. Universal access to free preventive care and well-being services would be the most effective way to promote peace and reduce suffering. Preventive care is essential for maintaining good health and preventing disease, both physically and mentally. By providing everyone with access to preventive care, we can reduce the burden of illness and improve the overall well-being of the population. This would lead to a more peaceful and harmonious world.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)
I would have to say Dr. Dan Siegel. His work on Interpersonal Neurobiology is groundbreaking and extremely valuable in our quest to make the world a better place. His work has been extremely impactful on my own personal and professional life. I would love to sit and talk with him about his ideas moving forward as well as what we can do better to bring integration and balance to the world.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Thank you so much for your time!
Here are my references for my answers:
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Friedman, E., & Krause-Parello, C. A. (2018). Companion animals and human health: benefits, challenges, and the road ahead for human-animal interaction. Revue Scientifique et Technique (International Office of Epizootics), 37(1), 71–82. https://doi.org/10.20506/rst.37.1.2741
González-Ramírez, M. T., Ortiz-Jiménez, X. A., & Landero-Hernández, R. (2013). Cognitive–Behavioral Therapy and Animal-Assisted Therapy: Stress Management for Adults. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 19(5), 270–275. https://doi.org/10.1089/act.2013.19505
Greenberg, J. S. (2021). Comprehensive stress management. Mcgraw-Hill Education.
Koca, T. T. (2016). What is hippotherapy? The indications and effectiveness of hippotherapy. Northern Clinics of Istanbul, 2(3). https://doi.org/10.14744/nci.2016.71601
Qureshi, A. I., Memon, M. Z., & Vazquez, G. (2009). Cat ownership and the risk of fatal cardiovascular diseases. results from the second national health and nutrition examination study mortality follow-up study. Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology, 2(1).
Tanaka, A., Saeki, J., Hayama, S., & Kass, P. H. (2019). Effect of Pets on Human Behavior and Stress in Disaster. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 6(113). https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2019.00113
About the Interviewer: Wanda Malhotra is a wellness entrepreneur, lifestyle journalist, and the CEO of Crunchy Mama Box, a mission-driven platform promoting conscious living. CMB empowers individuals with educational resources and vetted products to help them make informed choices. Passionate about social causes like environmental preservation and animal welfare, Wanda writes about clean beauty, wellness, nutrition, social impact and sustainability, simplifying wellness with curated resources. Join Wanda and the Crunchy Mama Box community in embracing a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle at CrunchyMamaBox.com .