Advice · Mental Health

Mental Health Adoption Guide: Fuzzy Friends

The day my husband and I got our dog we had set out for a cat. I pretty much love all animals, but a cat seemed like the perfect new addition to our family for our first apartment. I could relate to them – independent, a little moody and sometimes eccentric, can take some time to warm up to new people (I definitely relate to the impulse to hide when there is company over). I’ve also been known to fall asleep in the sun. So, the day we came home with our dog I wasn’t sure what to do or think. My husband was thrilled. I was petrified, especially during the first day few days I spent alone with him. This little, loud baby was totally dependent on me. I didn’t know if I was equal to the task, especially when I was battling my mental illnesses.

It took months of learning, adjusting, and bonding for us to work. I had to totally shift the way I approached my day, change my habits and even pick up new hobbies. We chose a very high-energy breed so as a puppy especially he needed a lot of mental stimulation, walks, and playtime. We started going on walks every day (don’t even get me started on leash training, good lord) and once he was old enough we gave running together a try. As someone with anxiety, walking or running with a larger dog definitely makes you feel more safe than if you were out on your own. Every time a grody dude looks in our direction too long I can rationalize that he’s looking at my pretty dog (and that’s probably true more than half the time… hopefully).

When you have depression it can be a battle to take care of yourself, to see the good in the world, or to feel loved. Pets can give us a reason to get out of bed. They can motivate us to keep going. They love unconditionally. If you’re anything like me, though, the thought of bringing a creature who needs you into your life is terrifying! You can barely take care of yourself sometimes! And out of all the options out there how the heck are you supposed to know which is best for you? I feel you. Even thinking about starting the process can be overwhelming. Cat, dog, rabbit, fish, bird, rat, reptile… All pets have their quirks and perks. The trick is figuring out which one best matches your personality and lifestyle. In two articles I plan to outline a few of your different pet options and their needs and maintenance levels to help you find your best “fit” with mental health also in mind. First, we’ll cover some of the more common household pets, dogs, cats, and all things small and fuzzy!

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Dogs

They are so excited to see you! They love you! Let’s adopt all the puppies! Everything is so great!

Leash training, house training, crate training, training-training. Puppies are the cutest little babies and are a very, very high-maintenance pet. Do you have the time to give them all the attention they need? Puppies would be best suited to someone who either works from home or is unemployed, or to a family who can divvy up their schedules to make sure he/she is never home alone very long. Don’t have the time for a puppy, but still interested a barking buddy? That’s great! Adopt a full-grown dog or a senior dog! They will still need your time and attention, but it will be decidedly less.

Puppy, dog, or senior dog – the returns for having a dog are wonderful, especially if you have depression and/or anxiety like me. Even at my worst he makes me laugh, or he’s there to cuddle up to me while I binge-watch Project Runway. If I don’t want to get out of bed, too bad. He needs to go outside. Sometimes that little bit of fresh air is what gets me started on pulling myself back up. Sometimes it isn’t and I hate every second of it, but getting out of bed when you’re deep in a depressive episode is an achievement in itself. It’s almost impossible to stay stagnant long if you have a dog, especially if that dog is a high-energy breed. They need to get outside, they need to play, they need your attention. My dog has been the biggest motivator in my life in getting outside and being more active. It’s a good thing, but something that perhaps doesn’t appeal to everyone or isn’t something that everyone is able to handle.

One last thing to take into account with bringing a dog into your family – their different breeds. A working breed dog (Siberian husky, German shepherd, Australian shepherd, etc.) will generally need more attention and work than something smaller and somewhat less active (like a Chihuahua or English bulldog). If you can’t handle becoming much more active or being outside a whole lot, a smaller dog would suit you better. Of course, small dog breeds still need their outside time and they can still be very, very hyper! But they are much more suited to playing fetch in the house while you sit on the couch than, say, a Bernese mountain dog. They all have their personalities and needs, do your research to find which breed would match your family and lifestyle best. There is a fit for nearly everyone. Unless you straight up don’t like dogs, which is cool and all, but why are you reading this section, silly?

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Cats

Pet me! DON’T TOUCH ME. Let me in the door! No wait, I need to go back out! No, in! Out! Where’s my food?!

Another very common household pet, and for good reason. Cats are a great mix of independent and affectionate. A full-grown cat (and even an older kitten) will be totally cool with you going to work every day or being left alone for longer stretches of time, unlike doggies. Just make sure they have food and water, a clean litter box, some warm places to snooze, and maybe even a scratching post.

Kittens are less maintenance than puppies, but they still need you more than an adult cat would. Litter-training, teaching them what not to scratch, and lots of play/bonding time. If you do adopt a kitten and still have to go to work eight hours a day, I would gently suggest adopting two kittens together. But, Lillian, doesn’t that mean twice the craziness? Yes! It’s a win-win! But seriously, having two kittens (perhaps from the same litter) will make it so they feel comfortable in their new home when you’re not there. They’ll be able to lean on each other and keep each other entertained. That said, please keep your glassware safely in their cabinets and fully expect them to be possibly climbing up your curtains or clawing at things they shouldn’t until they’re older and know better (and maybe even after they know better because cats are adorable little jerks sometimes).

If all the kitten silliness doesn’t appeal to you, a full-grown or senior cat is the way to go. There are so, so many cats who need homes in shelters everywhere, there absolutely is one out there with a personality that complements yours. There are lazy cats, active cats, social cats, grumpy cats… One of the great perks of adopting a full-grown animal is getting to learn what they’re like before you bring them into your family. If you’re interested in going outside with your pet occasionally, you can even leash train your cat! Some of them love walks and exploring, or even just lying out in the grass, and it’s a great bonding activity.

Cats will make you laugh and be there to purr on your lap, but it’s all on their own time and when they’re in the mood (much like people!). If you’re stuck in bed, a kitty will be there to either meow you out from under the covers, lie with you and keep you company, or stare at you until you wonder if he’s judging you for still being in bed at 3pm (the answer is probably yes, but also he wants to be fed). If you’re looking for a companion who will love you as obviously as a dog will without the high-maintenance aspects of actually having a dog, a cat might be the purrfect match for you. I’m so sorry for making that joke, please don’t close this out to go back to reblogging videos of kittens sleeping on Tumblr.

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The Small Fuzzies

You’re here, you’re here! Did you bring us some treats?

The very first animals I strongly bonded with as a child, and again much later as an adult, were rats! Domesticated rats are curious, sociable, loving, and intelligent little babies. They unfortunately just don’t live very long, the average being 2-4 years (compared to cats and dogs at 10-15 years). They live longer with a buddy, so if you decide to bring a rattie into your life bring their brother or sister if possible too! As far as maintenance goes, they are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. They don’t need a whole lot, but they are social creatures so if you don’t get them a buddy you will need to spend a lot more time with them for them to be happy. In general, little caged cuties do better with a companion to share their space with, but be sure to adopt them together so they grow up bonded.

Gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, and rats are generally very easy to handle and great first pets. They still give you love and attention when you give them the same, but they won’t need outside potty breaks or daily walks. They often take longer to warm up than a dog or a cat, so you need to be patient with them and give them their space to get used to their new surroundings. Rabbits especially need your patience, at first they will be very shy and timid while getting to know you. And always keep in mind, just because they’re small and cute doesn’t mean that they want to be snuggled! Many of these animals are terrified of being picked up or hate being held. Test the waters slowly and always be gentle with them, they can’t be played with in the same way you play with dogs or cats. Except ferrets, those little dog/cat snakes are just plain weird (in the best way). Ferrets, being very high-energy, need a lot more attention and upkeep, and they can get into everything. They really are almost like tiny dogs! With that in mind, they’ll also need similar training so they know now to chew on certain things or bite too hard.

In terms of what they need, a ferret, guinea pig, or rabbit will need a much bigger enclosure than a hamster or gerbil. Sometimes people even give rabbits a whole room to themselves, setting up their cages with fencing around it and laying out different tunnels and toys! If you can’t give a rabbit or ferret that kind of space, that’s okay! But also consider that they will need an enclosure that is adequate for their size and “outside” time to run around the house or even just your room to stay happy and healthy. Now that my rabbit is older he doesn’t come out and run around as often as he used to, but giving him the option is important. They will chew on things they shouldn’t and ferrets will even “steal” things, so keep an eye on them! They do make harnesses for rabbits and ferrets so you can take them outside too, but be careful they don’t slip out (this happened to my rabbit for just a few seconds and it was terrifying) and keep in mind that not all of them will enjoy being outside. A good alternative to a harness is a playpen so they can enjoy the sun and grass without being at risk for hopping off.

As far as choosing which small, fuzzy creature works best for you – do you want a cuddler, a playmate, or someone just outright adorable? In my experience, ferrets are the most playful (and again, the most high-energy and high-maintenance), but rats are also quite social and playful, and they can be cuddly, too! Rabbits are social, but their “play” isn’t exactly the same as other pets. It’s almost like learning another language. Be patient and gentle with them, though, and sometimes they will bond enough with their human to cuddle up to them and “groom” them. Gerbils and hamsters are straight up cute, you can buy a wheel or exercise ball for them to play, but any kind of “play” will be more you watching them do their thing. You can hold them, but generally they won’t want to be carried around for long periods of time. For someone with depression or anxiety, just having something small and cute to take care of and watch be small and cute is a great stress reliever. It can give you a little bit of hope that not everything in the world is bad. And even though they’re small, they can give you so much love! You just have to be a little more patient for it.

One last thing to consider when considering the small fuzzies, “quiet” pets like these can’t ask for food when they are hungry or water when they’re thirsty, or warn you when they’re not feeling well. Dogs will whine or bark and cats will meow relentlessly, but rabbits (although sometimes they will “thump” if they are displeased with something), rats, hamsters, gerbils, etc. can’t do that for you. Guinea pigs, though, can often be quite talkative, and my ferret used to literally bite the bars of her cage and shake it when she wanted attention. If you have trouble remembering things or aren’t particularly observant, perhaps the quieter caged pets wouldn’t be your thing.

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A few closing reminders…

In adopting any of these pets, be prepared for messes. Be prepared to clean cages or clean up accidents. With a dog or cat, be prepared to come home to vomit. Be prepared to wake up to the sound of your dog peeing on the floor (nothing gets you out of bed faster). Be prepared to have something you like mangled or utterly destroyed (my dog destroyed countless pairs of my shoes – just my shoes, never my husband’s). Sometimes they will do something that completely pisses you off or frustrates you, but more often than not it’s because they missed you, because they’re still babies, because they were scared, or confused, or bored, or just flat out didn’t know any better. Any of these pets can make quick work of your favorite book (my pet rat chewed the corners of my nicest copy of Alice in Wonderland) or pee on your pillow. Cater your pet experience to what your life allows, and to what you’re willing to change or let into your life. A Siberian husky will always be more involved than a rabbit, and a rabbit will always be more involved than a goldfish. The good news is that you can do that! They can be as high or low-maintenance as you need. But try to keep in mind that even with the most high-maintenance dog out there, when you bond with each other and they truly become a part of your family, all of the accidents, mangled shoes, and frustrations are worth it. It gets easier! The best thing you can do is thoroughly research the pets you’re interested in and prepare for their arrival (which includes pet proofing, gathering their food and supplies, and talking to anyone else who may be involved in their care) before taking the plunge.

If all things fuzzy don’t appeal to you (it was the vomit talk, wasn’t it?) in the next installment I’ll cover birds, reptiles and amphibians, and fish!

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