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More Than Just a Cute Face

A pet can be a loving companion in a time of need.

Pets will always bring a smile to your face, but there are other benefits that can come from owning pets. For Catie Dvorak, who grew up with all manner of pets, starting college without any was difficult. On top of classes, making friends, and all the anxieties of leaving home, she added on a new psoriasis diagnosis – a disease she knew about. Her younger brother was diagnosed several years back. Dvorak says that she went from being a gregarious person to having anxiety and depression, common comorbidities of psoriatic disease, as well as having agoraphobia, making it difficult to leave her dorm room, even to go to class. “The bottom line is, I felt like my body was betraying me to a degree, and I was always anxious that I wouldn't present the way I wanted to present to people,” says Dvorak.

Enter Princess Penelope Peanut Piggy, a small guinea pig who made a big difference. “She got me through some very difficult times,” Dvorak says of Penelope, adding that she would show off the guinea pig to others in the dorm, which reduced the anxiety of meeting new people and making friends.

Now in grad school, Dvorak’s “herd” has grown and includes Emily Pigginson the pig, Reese the skunk, Monty the ball python, Bellatrix the cat, and Linus the dog. “Just the release of dopamine and serotonin that I get when I'm spending time with them, I know it completely helps me to lower my stress levels,” says Dvorak. “It makes me really happy to make all my pets really happy.” With lingering agoraphobia, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, going to the dog park with her dog and pig motivates her to get out of the house.

A cat, dog, pig and skunk on a bed.

Stress can undoubtedly be a trigger for psoriasis flares. Finding ways to manage day-to-day stress is an important part of managing the disease. “[My pets] help me to destress and just feel good, and that that sets me up for fewer flare ups. That sets me up for a more controllable experience of the disease,” says Dvorak.

As an experienced mental health therapist, Anne Tindall knows the benefits that pet ownership can bring. “Having pets helps with anxiety [and] depression. Also, they help to lower blood pressure,” says Tindall. “People that have pets have lower rates of heart disease, lower rates of stress.” She also knows from personal experience the potential benefits pets can have for those with psoriatic disease, particularly when it comes to staying active with psoriatic arthritis (PsA). I can hear one of her dogs, Pippa, barking in the background of our call, trying to get her to play. Tindall laughs and says, “It forces you to do that movement as well, getting up and moving around, and have that energy too.”

In her work, Tindall has noticed the benefits of just talking about pets. She told me of a recent client that started the appointment anxious and nervous. “And then when we started talking about her dogs, that's when I noticed that she really relaxed,” says Tindall. “Even just talking about your pets to other people is therapeutic as well.”

Like Dvorak, Jocelyn Hall also grew up with several pets. Diagnosed with psoriasis as a child, Hall appreciated having pets around. “Pets don't judge you. Pets will always love you. Pets don't care about your skin. Pets don't see that at all,” says Hall. Now an adult, Hall has gotten married, been diagnosed with PsA, adopted her dog Leo, gotten divorced, and had to put Leo down. Though she felt like her heart was closed off, especially after Leo passed away, she recently, on a whim, applied to foster a new dog.  Now she has Kailani, or Lani, in her life.

Jocelyn Hall and Lani the dog.

Hall says that she is actually inspired by Lani – a dog that has been isolated for much of her life due to multiple medical issues but is still loving and happy. “She's kind of been teaching me that that you don't have to be hardened by life – by the things that happen to you,” says Hall. She is still struggling with grief and depression, so Hall’s therapist told her to take time to pet Lani and focus on her hand and the feeling of the fur as a kind of meditation. Hall says it helps her stay in the moment. “Having her is helping me take care of myself again,” says Hall.

Not only have her pets helped her mental health, but they have also helped her manage her psoriatic disease. Hall used to go swimming with Leo frequently, and she found that the saltwater she swam in would relieve her skin lesions. Being active, regularly taking Lani on walks, and playing with her has helped her PsA symptoms as well. “If they're going to have the best life, I have to live my best life too,” says Hall.

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