How Having a Pet Can Help You Cope with Vitiligo

Remember White Eyed Rowdy? Rowdy is the Instagram-famous black labrador retriever from Oregon who developed vitiligo around his eyes. Several children, after meeting Rowdy, were encouraged to embrace their vitiligo. Rowdy was one of the early stories I read when Googling vitiligo to learn more about my son Titus’ diagnosis this spring.

A few months before diagnosis, my daughter and I read a story in a Highlights magazine about therapy animals who help children learn to read. Soon after, we met a family with a therapy parrot who is a part of a regular therapy animal reading hour at our local library to help children practice reading.

When Titus was diagnosed, Rowdy’s story and our experiences with these therapy pets inspired me. A month later, we brought home a puppy for these four specific reasons.

Pets can be good listeners

Several in the vitiligo community have shared that middle school with vitiligo was particularly rough. My cousin did not grow up with vitiligo, but she would tell me stories of coming home during middle school and bawling about her day to her dog. I wanted our home to have a furry friend who would listen without judgment during these coming years of possible young teenage angst for my son.

Pets encourage playtime

Peter Gray is a Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College and a contributor to the American Journal of Play and The Strong – National Museum of Play. In an article titled The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents, he writes:Over the past half century, in the United States and other developed nations, children’s free play with other children has declined sharply. Over the same period, anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased sharply in children, adolescents, and young adults.” Further, he contends that “the decline in play has contributed to the rise in the psychopathology of young people.” Multiple studies cited by the the American Academy of Pediatrics agree that children, particularly teens, with vitiligo struggle with various psychological problems.

As a parent raising a son with vitiligo who will be in middle school in a year, I am very motivated to fill our lives with resources that are shown to promote mental health in kids. If play contributes to mental health, how can I encourage play for my son, when he perhaps feels he is outgrowing playtime? We brought home a mixed-breed labrador because I know they are very sweet and playful dogs. I figured a dog would give Titus an excuse to get out, be young, and play even as a teenager. It is hard not to enjoy playing fetch, tug-of-war, and tag with our happy dog.

Pets need exercise

In an article titled “Exercise for Mental Health,” doctors Ashish Sharma, Vishal Madaan, and Frederick D. Petty write: “Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal.” Our big labrador needs regular exercise, so as we get out and walk him, he is helping us take care of our own physical and mental health – a win-win situation for all.

Pets can alleviate social anxiety and foster friendships and community

I hoped that if my son has seasons ahead of him of feeling social anxiety about his vitiligo, perhaps walking a cute and friendly dog could be a helpful conversation starter with children and fellow dog-lovers, that would allow our pup, rather than his skin, to be the icebreaker. I only felt this, but science shows that, sometimes, a mom’s intuition does know best. One study of pet owners in the U.S. and Australia concluded that pets did, in fact, help them get to know their neighbors, which, for many, grew into close friendships and community support systems.

Five months ago, Elizabeth Witcher, a California resident with vitiligo, adopted Max, a brown and white spotted pup. A couple weeks later she shared this sweet story on her Instagram account: “A little girl was very excited to pet Max today! She was even more excited when she looked at my skin. A big smile crossed her face as she pointed out how my skin was the same as his fur. I didn’t go searching for a dog that would match my skin so perfectly, but it worked out that way!”

Way to go Max – a woman’s best friend, indeed.

How have your furry friends encouraged you when you feel discouraged by your vitiligo?

Photo by Elizabeth Witcher.

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Sara Conley

Sara is vitiligo mom and patient providing support, community and awareness for vitiligo in Phoenix, Arizona. Her and her son, Titus, were diagnosed in the spring of 2018. Find her on Instagram at @vitiligofamily.

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