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While the physical wounds of war may heal over time, mental and emotional scars often remain, affecting veterans long after they've returned home. The hidden battles of PTSD, anxiety, and depression can be daunting, but many veterans find a powerful ally in a seemingly unlikely place—the companionship of pets.
In honor of Veteran’s Day, let’s explore the ways in which dogs and cats can provide therapeutic relief and offer support in the process of healing and adaptation to civilian life.
Understanding the invisible wounds of war
The debilitating impact of PTSD
The theatre of war is a high-stress environment, exposing soldiers to traumatic events that can have long-lasting psychological effects. Among these, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is particularly common.
PTSD wasn't formally recognized by the American Psychiatric Association until 1980, but its symptoms have been documented for centuries under different names like "shell shock" or "combat fatigue." The condition occurs when a person has difficulty recovering from experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event.
According to a study by the US Department of Veterans Affairs, in 2020 alone approximately 16 veterans died by suicide each day. PTSD, characterized by symptoms of intense flashbacks and debilitating anxiety, can be one of the primary contributors to this statistic.
For veterans, the heightened sense of danger and the reality of life-threatening situations can be a recipe for mental health struggles. Transitioning back to civilian life can become a herculean task, making reintegration painful and fraught.
When anxiety and depression take hold
In addition to PTSD, veterans are generally more prone to experiencing anxiety and depression than the general population. Multiple factors contribute to this heightened risk, making it a complex issue that requires nuanced understanding and treatment.
Exposure to trauma
First and foremost, the very nature of military service, particularly during combat deployments, exposes veterans to high levels of trauma. Whether it's experiencing life-threatening situations, losing comrades, or witnessing the horrors of war, such traumatic events can create lasting psychological scars.
"Moral injury" is a term that has been gaining attention in the realm of veterans' mental health. It refers to the psychological and emotional damage caused by doing something that conflicts with one's ethical or moral beliefs.
For example, a soldier might be ordered to take actions in combat that they find morally upsetting, leading to internal conflict and, ultimately, to conditions like anxiety and depression.
Reintegrating into civilian life presents its own set of challenges, commonly referred to as "transition stress." Veterans often find it difficult to adapt to the comparatively unstructured civilian world, leading to feelings of isolation, aimlessness, and anxiety.
Lack of support network
Upon returning home, some veterans find that their support network has weakened in their absence or that civilian friends and family can't fully comprehend what they've been through. This can exacerbate feelings of isolation and contribute to depression and anxiety.
Stigma around mental health
Finally, there's a stigma surrounding mental health in many military cultures, which can prevent veterans from seeking help. The "tough it out" mindset prevalent in military settings can discourage admitting to struggles with emotional or psychological well-being, making it harder to get the support and treatment needed.
How pets can act as emotional support systems
Pets can provide emotional support and a non-judgmental presence, making them ideal companions for anyone grappling with mental health issues. Even for the average person, the act of petting an animal has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn helps mitigate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
For veterans dealing with PTSD, a dog's keen senses can also detect changes in a person’s mood, offering comfort during periods of heightened stress or agitation. Specifically, pets offer:
Unconditional love and trust
The unconditional love from a pet can instill a sense of trust and security, helping veterans to re-establish trust in their environment. This is a crucial step in the journey towards emotional healing.
Structured routine and physical Activity
Regular feeding and walking schedules create a daily routine that can be comforting. The physical activity involved in pet care can also release endorphins, the body's natural mood lifters.
Emotional openness through non-verbal communication
Pets provide a safe space for emotional expression. A 2015 study found that animal-assisted therapy can result in significant reductions in PTSD symptoms among veterans.
Specialized training: pets as service animals
While both pets and trained service animals can offer companionship and emotional support, they aren't the same when it comes to addressing specific mental health conditions like PTSD, anxiety, and depression, especially for veterans. Here's a breakdown to help you understand the key differences:
Training and certification
Service animals: These dogs are highly trained to perform specific tasks that assist their handlers with disabilities. In the context of mental health, a psychiatric service dog may be trained to detect the onset of a panic attack, interrupt self-harming behaviors, or provide tactile stimulation to soothe anxiety.
Pets: Regular pets do not have the specialized training to assist with mental health conditions. They offer general emotional support and companionship but can't perform specific tasks to mitigate symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, or depression.
Legal rights and protections
Service animals: Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are allowed to accompany their handlers in most public spaces, including restaurants, hotels, and airplanes.
Pets: General pets do not have these legal protections and may be prohibited in many public spaces.
Service animals: These animals are working dogs; their role is to assist their handler. However, like all dogs, they still require regular exercise, play, and downtime.
Pets: Pets are primarily companions and thus their role is less focused. They still require love, attention, and care but are not 'on duty' in the way service animals are.
Emotional vs. task support
Service animals: These animals offer both emotional support and are trained to perform specific tasks that aid in symptom management.
Pets: Offer emotional comfort and can be extremely intuitive about their owner's moods, but they aren't trained to perform tasks that can specifically alleviate symptoms of mental health disorders.
Service animals: The cost of acquiring a trained service animal can be significant. However, there are organizations that help veterans acquire service dogs at little to no cost.
Pets: While pets can be expensive to care for, their costs are generally lower than that of a specially trained service animal.
Understanding these differences can help you make an informed decision about whether a pet or a trained service animal would better suit your needs, especially if you're a veteran dealing with PTSD, anxiety, or depression.
How pets are selected
Specific breeds and individual animals with particular temperaments are chosen for training as service animals. This training is highly specialized, focusing on the unique needs of veterans.
Positive reinforcement, sensory training, and specific command recognition are all part of the intensive training regimen. Some animals are even trained to recognize and respond to emotional triggers, effectively de-escalating situations before they become too overwhelming.
Organizations making a difference
Pets for Vets
Pets for Vets focuses on pairing rescue dogs with veterans, aiming for a win-win situation for both. Website
K9s for Warriors
This organization provides service dogs to veterans suffering from PTSD and other mental health conditions. Website
If you’re looking to rescue a dog in need of a home, American Humane’s Pups4Patriots™ program finds dogs in search of forever homes and trains them to be lifesaving service dogs for veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress or Traumatic Brain Injury. Website
How you can help
If you're not a veteran but are moved by the struggles many face during their transition back to civilian life, there are various ways you can get involved.
This could range from volunteering your time at organizations that connect veterans with service animals to donating money or supplies to these causes. Your support can make a tangible difference in the life of a veteran and their pet parent journey.
Monetary donations to dedicated organizations can go a long way in training and pairing service animals with veterans. Along with those listed above, here are a few additional organizations.
Patriot Paws: Aimed at helping disabled veterans, Patriot Paws trains and provides service dogs at no cost to the vet. Website
Operation Freedom Paws: This organization empowers veterans to restore their freedom to live life by teaching them to train their own dogs and certifying them as service dog teams. Website
Hero Dogs: Provides service dogs to veterans and first responders with disabilities, improves quality of life, and offers lifetime support to the service dog teams. Website
Paws and Stripes: This organization provides service dogs for wounded military veterans with combat-related mental and physical injuries. Website
Offering your time to train, house, or even just spend time with these animals can have a big impact. Freedom Service Dogs is an organization that allows you to foster puppies and raise them to become future service dogs.
Where to turn if you're struggling
For those who've bravely served our country, transitioning back to civilian life can come with a unique set of challenges.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, don't hesitate to reach out to support groups, psychologists, or helplines designed to offer help.
NVF Lifeline for Vets – 1-888-777-4443
VA Suicide Hotline – 1-800-273-8255
National Suicide Hotline - 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Stop Soldier Suicide - 1-.800-273-8255 #1
More resources are available through the National Veteran’s Foundation.
While pets are not a cure-all for the complex mental health issues faced by veterans, they can certainly serve as vital companions in the journey toward emotional well-being.
Understanding the profound impact that animals can have gives us a fresh perspective on coping mechanisms and therapies.
Lizz Caputo is the Manager of Content Strategy at Figo, animal enthusiast, and owner of a rescued senior American Bully. Her hobbies include checking out new restaurants in her area, boxing, and petting dogs of all shapes and sizes.