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The Healing Paw's Impact For Veterans

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

From Battlefields to Dog Parks

Dog dressed in a military jacket


Introduction

The bond between humans and animals is ancient, but its therapeutic potential is a subject of ongoing research and discussion. For veterans, who often face a unique set of challenges such as PTSD, anxiety, and physical injuries, pets can offer more than just companionship; they can supply genuine emotional and physical support.


As someone who has personally experienced the healing power of animals, I can attest to their transformative impact. While I am not a veteran, I have battled PTSD, anxiety, and depression stemming from years of abuse. My own pets have been an invaluable part of my healing journey, supplying emotional support and a sense of stability in my life.


According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, veterans who had service dogs reported lower levels of depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms compared to those without one (O'Haire, Rodriguez, et al., 2018). Another study from Purdue University found that veterans with service dogs had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol (O'Haire, Guérin, et al., 2020).


The importance of pets in the lives of veterans is so significant that it has led to the establishment of National Pets for Veterans Day, saw every year on October 21st. This holiday aims to raise awareness about the benefits of pet ownership for veterans and encourages adoption of shelter animals to supply companionship and support to those who have served our country (Pets for Patriots, 2021).


Emotional Support and Companionship

The emotional well-being of veterans is a critical concern, often requiring multifaceted approaches for effective management. One such approach that has shown promise is the companionship of pets. In this section, we'll explore how pets offer emotional support and companionship to veterans, backed by scientific evidence and personal experience.


The Emotional Toll on Veterans

Veterans face many emotional challenges when they return to civilian life. These challenges affect not only them but also their families and communities. Military service can cause PTSD, anxiety, and depression. These conditions can make it hard for veterans to live a normal life.


PTSD is a common condition among veterans who have been through or seen life-threatening events. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 11-20% of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD each year. PTSD can cause flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and unwanted thoughts. These symptoms can prevent veterans from socializing, working, or doing everyday tasks.


Anxiety and depression are other emotional challenges that veterans face. Anxiety can make veterans feel worried, fearful, or nervous all the time. Depression can make veterans feel sad, hopeless, or uninterested in anything. These feelings can affect their mood, energy, and motivation.


Veterans need effective treatment and support for their emotional challenges. Medication and therapy are common options, but they are not enough. Alternative treatments like pet therapy can also help veterans cope with their mental health issues. Pet therapy involves interacting with animals that supply comfort and companionship. Studies show that pet therapy can reduce stress, improve mood, and increase social skills for veterans.



The Role of Pets

Pets are more than just animals; they are companions that offer emotional support in ways that are unique and deeply impactful.

Pets offer a constant, non-judgmental presence.

They can help divert attention away from traumatic experiences and focus on the present.


Scientific Evidence

The benefits of pet ownership aren't just anecdotal; they are supported by a growing body of scientific research.

A study by the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute found that 74% of pet owners reported improvements in their mental health from pet ownership.

Another study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that veterans with service dogs reported lower levels of depression and higher levels of life satisfaction.


Personal Experience

While scientific studies offer valuable insights, firsthand experiences can provide a unique perspective on the emotional benefits of pet ownership.


While not a veteran, my own experience with PTSD, anxiety, and depression has shown me the healing power of pets.The companionship of my pets has been a cornerstone in my emotional well-being, offering a sense of comfort and routine that is invaluable.


Physical Health Benefits

When we think of the benefits of pets for veterans, we often focus on the emotional aspects. Pets can provide comfort, companionship, and unconditional love for those who struggle with mental health issues. But pets can also offer a range of physical health benefits that go beyond the emotional support they provide. In this section, we’ll explore how pets can help veterans improve their physical well-being, backed by scientific evidence.


Many veterans face physical challenges when they return to civilian life. Some may have visible injuries or disabilities that require ongoing care. Others may have invisible conditions that affect their quality of life.


For example, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 30% of Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime. PTSD can manifest physically through symptoms like insomnia, high blood pressure, and chronic pain.

Pets can help veterans cope with these physical challenges in numerous ways. One of the most obvious ways is by encouraging regular exercise, especially for dog owners.


Walking a dog can supply multiple benefits for both the pet and the owner. Not only does it burn calories and strengthen muscles, but it also improves cardiovascular health. A study published in the American Journal of Cardiology found that pet owners had lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels compared to non-pet owners. Exercise can also improve coordination and balance, which can be helpful for veterans with mobility issues.


But pets don’t just encourage physical activity; they also have a direct impact on cardiovascular health. Research has shown that simply being around a pet can lower heart rate and blood pressure, as well as reduce stress hormones. Pets can also act as a buffer against social isolation, which can increase the risk of heart disease. Having a pet can also motivate veterans to take better care of themselves, such as quitting smoking or drinking less alcohol.


The physical health benefits of pets are not just anecdotal; they are supported by scientific research. Studies have consistently shown that pet owners are more likely to have better physical health than non-pet owners. For instance, a study from the Mayo Clinic found that pet owners had lower rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension than non-pet owners. Another study found that pet owners had fewer doctor visits and lower health care costs than non-pet owners.


As you can see, pets can offer a range of physical health benefits for veterans. Whether it’s through exercise, companionship, or stress relief, pets can help veterans improve their quality of life and well-being.


Training and Responsibility

Owning a pet is not just about receiving love and support; it’s also about giving it. For veterans, the act of caring for a pet can instill a sense of responsibility and purpose that is often transformative. In this section, we’ll explore how training and responsibility can help veterans improve their mental health and well-being.


One of the benefits of having a pet is that it supplies a sense of routine. This can be especially helpful for veterans who may be dealing with emotional or physical challenges. Pets need consistent care, such as feeding, walking, grooming, and playing. These activities can create a sense of structure and purpose for both the pet and the owner.


John, a veteran who adopted a dog named Max after returning from Iraq, says that having a routine helped him cope with his PTSD symptoms. “Max needs me to get up every morning, take him out, feed him, play with him. He gives me something to look forward to every day. He makes me feel needed and useful.”


Another benefit of having a pet is that it encourages engagement through training. Training a pet can be a rewarding experience that not only strengthens the bond between the pet and the owner but also supplies mental stimulation for both. Basic obedience training can serve as a form of cognitive therapy, requiring focus and attention.


Lisa, a veteran who adopted a cat named Luna after serving in Afghanistan, says that training her cat helped her overcome her anxiety. “Luna was very shy and scared when I first got her. I decided to teach her some tricks, like sit, high-five, roll over. It was fun and challenging for both of us. She became more confident and trusting, and I became more relaxed and calmer.”


The act of caring for another living being can also have profound effects on mental health. It can supply a sense of responsibility that can be deeply fulfilling. A study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that pet ownership was associated with improvements in mental well-being, including a sense of responsibility and purpose.


James, a veteran who adopted a bird named Charlie after suffering from depression, says that caring for his bird gave him hope and joy. “Charlie is my best friend. He sings to me every morning, he listens to me when I talk to him, he makes me laugh with his antics. He depends on me for everything, and I depend on him too. He gives me a reason to live.”


Scientific research supports the idea that the responsibilities associated with pet ownership can have tangible mental health benefits. A study from the University of Liverpool found that the responsibilities of caring for a pet were associated with greater self-esteem and less loneliness.


As you can see, training and responsibility are key aspects of pet ownership that can help veterans improve their mental health and well-being. Whether it’s through routine, engagement, or care, pets can provide veterans with a sense of purpose and fulfillment.


Community and Social Benefits

Pets can serve as social catalysts, helping veterans reintegrate into civilian life and build meaningful relationships. This section will explore the community and social benefits that come with pet ownership, particularly for veterans.


Social Reintegration

Transitioning back to civilian life can be a challenge for many veterans. Pets can serve as a bridge, easing social interactions and helping veterans reintegrate into their communities.


Dog parks and pet-friendly events offer opportunities for socialization.


Pets can help veterans overcome social anxiety and depression by supplying emotional support and companionship, making it easier for them to engage in social activities and community events.


Building Relationships

The bond between a pet and its owner can extend to human relationships, helping veterans build new friendships and strengthen existing ones.


Pets can serve as conversation starters, making it easier for veterans to connect with others.


For example, walking a dog in the park or attending a pet-friendly event can provide natural opportunities for interaction, helping to break the ice and encourage conversations with neighbors and other community members.


Pets as Family for Veterans

For many veterans, pets become an integral part of their family, offering emotional support and companionship that extends to other family members.

A study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior found that pets often serve as "emotional anchors" for families, including those with veterans.

Pets can also help veterans cope with PTSD and other mental health issues, offering a sense of stability and emotional support that can be deeply comforting.


The Science Behind Community and Social Benefits

Research has shown that the social benefits of pet ownership extend beyond anecdotal evidence, offering quantifiable improvements in social engagement and relationship-building.


A study from the University of Cambridge found that pet owners reported stronger neighborhood social connections compared to non-pet owners.


The study was conducted through surveys and interviews, revealing specific social benefits such as increased interactions with neighbors, a greater sense of community belonging, and improved mental well-being.


Conclusion

The bond between pets and their owners is a powerful one, offering a myriad of benefits that extend beyond companionship. For veterans, this bond can be transformative, supplying emotional, physical, and social support that aids in their reintegration into civilian life. Scientific research continues to confirm these benefits, offering quantifiable data that underscores the importance of pets in the lives of veterans.


Whether it's the routine of caring for a pet, the physical activity encouraged by walks, or the social interactions eased by pet ownership, the positive impacts are undeniable.


While this article has focused primarily on the experiences of American veterans, it's worth noting that the human-animal bond is a universal phenomenon, as shown by studies from around the world, including Canada.


As we see National Pets for Veterans Day, let's take a moment to appreciate not just the service of our veterans, but also the pets that enrich their lives. It's a relationship that offers mutual benefits and one that deserves recognition and support.











References

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). "How Common is PTSD in Veterans?" Retrieved from VA PTSD Program.

Human-Animal Bond Research Institute. (n.d.). "The Pet Effect." Retrieved from HABRI Website.

O'Haire, M. E., Rodriguez, K. E., et al. (2018). "The Efficacy of Service Dogs for Veterans with PTSD: Preliminary Results of a Randomized Controlled Trial." Journal of Clinical Psychology, 74(6), 905–918.

O'Haire, M. E., Guérin, N. A., et al. (2020). "Cortisol levels of military veterans with PTSD and their service dogs: A pilot study." Psychoneuroendocrinology, 121, 104847.

American Journal of Cardiology. (n.d.). "Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk." Retrieved from American Journal of Cardiology.

Mayo Clinic. (2019). "The Benefits of Pet Ownership on Physical Health." Retrieved from Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

Journal of Psychiatric Research. (n.d.). "Pet Ownership and Mental Well-Being." Retrieved from Journal of Psychiatric Research.

University of Liverpool. (2019). "The Psychological and Emotional Benefits of Pet Ownership." Retrieved from University of Liverpool Research.

Journal of Veterinary Behavior. (n.d.). "Pets as Emotional Anchors." Retrieved from Journal of Veterinary Behavior.

University of Cambridge. (2019). "The Social Benefits of Pet Ownership." Retrieved from University of Cambridge Research.

Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. (n.d.). "The Human-Animal Bond: Implications for Veterinary Practice." Retrieved from CVMA Website.




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