Pets have mental health benefits, NYC program says

Rochelle Rosa said her shih tzus—6-year-old Elvira and 2-year-old Wednesday—aren't her pets.

"These are my kids, they're my family," Rosa said. "I can't imagine my life without them."

But she said that they are also her sense of purpose.

"Every time I go into a depression, I look at their faces and think, 'they need me,'" she said. "As much as I need them, they need me more so I need to be healthy and well for them and take care of them."

Rosa, a former medical technician, lives in a supportive housing program for people with mental health issues called Community Access. Four years ago, she found her way to a room of her own. She'd been living in city shelters for almost two years after living on the streets when she fled an abusive relationship.

"When you go into the shelter system, people don't want to know from you. So you lose your family, you lose your friends," Rosa said. "I felt very alone and isolated."

But that changed a few months after she moved in, thanks to a program called Pet Access. Staff members brought Rosa to an animal shelter, where she found Elvira. The program covered the cost of adoption, supplies, dog food, and a year's worth of veterinary care. This summer, she adopted Wednesday.

Residents who are part of Pet Access have benefits beyond companionship. The program's coordinator, Kurt Sass, said his data show that residents who adopt pets are less likely to be hospitalized or relapse.

"A person who had substance abuse issues as well as psychiatric issues, he'd been through rehab three times," Sass said. "But when he got his dog through Pet Access, he never went back to rehab and it's been about 10 years now."

Pet Access has facilitated some 118 animal adoptions for Community Access clients since it was started 15 years ago, including birds, fish, turtles, dogs, and cats. In addition to covering all the initial costs of adoption and pet care, the program provides training before clients become pet owners.

"It's not a free pet program—it's a program for people that A, can really value from the therapy of a pet program and B, are going to be responsible pet parents," Sass said.

Rosa said the dogs have been her lifesaver.

"What they do for me mentally, there's no pill, there's no therapy in the world that takes the place of what a pet does," she said.