The Mental Health Benefits of Doggos and Other Animal Friends

According to my Facebook memories, one year ago today, I wrote, “The only true winners of the pandemic are the pets.”

The picture above is the pet, Lexi. We got her in August 2019, and she has been our bestie ever since. She is sweet, lovable, patient, insane, and a wonderful addition to our family. We got her about six months after we lost Molly and a few weeks after we tried – and failed – to foster Mack.

I said it to my wife a thousand times, and it’s true: Lexi made the pandemic so, so much easier. She was a constant companion, a source of amusement, and basically just seemed…pretty glad to have us around. She seemed to just make us happier.

I just wanted to point this out – that’s a very, very real feeling. Doggos help, big time. From a mental health perspective, they:

  • Reduce depression
  • Ease the symptoms of a variety of mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD
  • Lower stress hormones
  • Reduce anxiety felt in children
  • Fill us with love and affection

There are a variety of physical benefits as well, including an increase in exercise, lower cholesterol, and improved heart disease. 

Oh…cats. Fine. I’m a dog person – and, unless I’m mistaken, I’ve found more articles about dogs than cats. However, cats do have real benefits on our physical and mental health, with some studies indicating that they lower blood pressure.

Actually, let me add one more thing. For years, Auron has wanted a fish. I mean, years. We told him – years ago – we’d do it when he was ten. To my disbelief, he actually remembered! Well, Auron turned ten the other day, and his Pappy got him a fish. We were all actually really clear with him: This is yours, buddy. You will be responsible for cleaning and feeding it – yes, we are supervising, I don’t want the damn thing to die.

To be clear, don’t get a dog to cure your depression. That’s not fair to the dog. They are living, breathing things. They are real, intense, and expensive responsibilities. But, if you have the time and the money, they are so, so worth it. If you are on the fence, keep that in mind. They are utter joys. And they can make us feel good.

How to cope with losing the pet you love

“Hey, something’s up with Molly. She’s not right.”

On Monday, April 8, we were getting ready in my house like any other day. I was going to Harrisburg, my wife was getting ready for school and the kids were eating breakfast. It was around 6:45am. Molly, our ten year old German Sheppard, was having trouble walking. She had an old leg injury, but it didn’t usually bother her like that. She was stumbling and just looked off.


I let her out to the backyard to load my car, as per usual. When I got back from the garage, she was lying down and panting. Not like her at all.

We made a vet appointment, but by the time my wife got home from work it was apparent it was more serious than that. I was in Harrisburg, ironing a shirt in my hotel room, when I gave Brenna the number for the vet. She ran Molly to the veterinary hospital, and I could feel a chasm opening in my chest. My father in law had run over to watch the kids, and he said, “Mike, Molly really doesn’t look good. She’s having trouble walking.Be prepared.”

Brenna had the kids hug Molly goodbye before she went to hospital with her, just in case. I’m glad she did.

Molly collapsed in the lobby of the hospital. They put her on a journey and ran her back. I was at a dinner that I abruptly left, and I was in the car, in the parking lot of the hotel room, when Bren called me back. She put the Vet on speaker phone, and the very nice woman sadly explained that Molly had a tumor around her heart. There was nothing we could have done, and nothing we could do.

I was able to get home in time. And we said goodbye.

Losing a pet is agonizing. I’d been through it once before, but it was my childhood dog. Losing the dog that your rescued and raised from puppyhood to old age is horrible. She was our practice child. We got her before we were married, before kids, before I was an elected official, before books. Molly was with us for more than 1/4 of our lives. Losing her has created a puppy-shaped hole in our lives.

Broadly speaking, some thoughts:

It’s gonna take time: It’s been about two weeks now. We’re getting there, but still have plenty of moments where we just burst into tears. I mean, the last time I cried was…yesterday. This is gonna take time. A lot of time.

The grief comes in waves: Let me acknowledge how lucky I am. I still have my parents and most of the people in my life who are close to me. So, this was one of the worst grief-laden experiences I’ve ever had. And it comes it waves. The first couple of days are horrible. Then it fades. And then out of nowhere…you find a dog hair. Or you drop food that the dog would normally eat. And it feels like you’ve been punched in the gut and you’re a weeping mess. Best advice I can give: Ride the storm. It fades. And it does get easier. Try to remember that.

Try to put your pain in perspective: Bren and I have both repeatedly commented on how we thought she had more time – how badly we wanted more time with Molly. What’s helped me get through that? I try to remember everything that went right. We had her for ten years. We gave her love and attention and time – and a lot of money caring for her, haha (side note: PET INSURANCE IS A GREAT IDEA). But Molly was found in a box in downtown Allentown. She was sick with hookworms. She should have died. But we took her into our home and loved her for ten wonderful years–and for those ten years she loved us and our kids and was with us for our greatest and darkest moments. More time would have been wonderful. But to have a friend like this for so long – and to remember the time you had together – makes a world of difference.

Yes, saying something on Facebook does help: Every time one of my friends posted on FB that they had lost a beloved pet, I said how sorry I was. And, in recent years, with an older dog, it always occurred to me – I’d write that update one day. When the time came, I was floored. I did it just to update people with what was happening in my life. I was blown away at the responses – how kind they were – and how much better they made me feel. When I returned to Harrisburg a day later, I had members, staffers, lobbyists telling me how sorry they were. Someone even mailed me a stuffed dog with a sweet note (I don’t know who you are, but if you’re reading this, thank you so much).

Those messages of support made a world of difference. I remain so touched by their kindness, but I was reminded that losing a pet is largely universal. So many know that pain. Share yours with others and let them be there for you, too.

The absence is louder than any scream: Being home alone has been the worst. Not having Molly in the living room staring at me. Begging to go out. Looking for attention. I can feel her absence like it’s physical. There are no more little noises anymore. No more tinkling of her dog tags. No more claws against the hard wooden floors.

Be prepared for that. I don’t have a solution yet, except time.

The loss of routines: Every morning, I wake up. Molly runs to the bed, pacing, grunting. She’s gotta pee. I let her out. She does her business and runs back to the door, jumping. I feed her. Then I gotta let her out again. For nearly ten years this was our dance, right up until the morning of the day she died. Before we go to bed, we let the dog out. At 4pm, she gets dinner. Every time I go to the kitchen, I check her water dish to refill it as necessary.

And just like that, those routines are gone. Brace yourself. That part is awful. 

Helping the kids: Our kids are 8 and 6. They’ve never known a world without Molly in it. They were, of course, besides themselves – they cried so hard that night. We snuggled with them and told them as appropriately as possible what had happened: She had cancer and had died. Auron, the older one, is more curious: Had she died with her eyes open? How had she died? I answered both of those questions later – without my daughter around.

The night she died we sat on the couch together and spoke about how much we loved her. We told the kids this would hurt – that it would take time – and that they could cry on our shoulders. We let them go late into school the next morning but we did bring them in together – we thought it was better for them to be surrounded by friends. Their teachers and classmates were SO KIND they even made cards. 

Both kids reacted differently. Ayla – my youngest – now walks around with a stuffed German Sheppard that we got her (named Molly, obviously). She brings it to school and says it helps. We got one for Auron too, but I have no idea where it is now – he didn’t really use or need it.

Broadly speaking, my experience with the kids has been this: Let them lead. They want to talk about Molly? Go right ahead. They don’t? Let it go. But just telling them to express their emotions, that death is a part of life, that you love someone so they have no regrets when they are gone and that we were there for them if they needed us – that made a world of difference, I think.

Take the punch: I had an already scheduled appointment with my therapist the other day, and naturally, this is largely what we discussed. I’d been working on trying to be more present and less in my head, and I asked him how to reconcile the pain of grief with that concept. His answer was great: You do it to take the punch. You do it to get stronger, because grief is an non-negotiable part of life.

Take the punch. It was worth every moment. I miss Molly deeply. And will for what I imagine will be the rest of my life. To quote a tweet I once saw: Owning a dog is like borrowing happiness from the future. My family and I are now in our repayment plan, but if you hold to that metaphor, the happiness we borrowed was like an investment. It was repayed countless times over. Dealing with this grief is rough but manageable. We will get there, and we will be dog owners again, both because it’s what we want and I think what Molly would have wanted for us. This house isn’t the same without a four legged friend, and when the grief has passed to a manageable level, we’ll be there again.

Anyway, thanks for reading. I hope this was as helpful for you to read as it was for me to write.