May 21, 2024
A man and a woman stand next to each other and smile.
Mark Winsor, left, and Zita Kavanagh-Taylor first teamed up on Paws for MS, a charity walk for multiple sclerosis research, eight years ago. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

Chronic physical illnesses often come with mental health issues — that’s what Zita Kavanagh-Taylor wanted to highlight with a four-legged fundraiser Saturday.

Kavanagh-Taylor, who lives with multiple sclerosis, created Paws for MS eight years ago. It’s an annual four-kilometre dog walk in Mount Pearl that raises funds for MS research.

“When you’re hit with MS, your whole life changes, a different route, different journey,” she said.

“Everybody that have MS have the same symptoms but are not leading the same life.”

Paws for MS, she said, is an opportunity for the community to come together and learn about the disease.

In Canada, about 90,000 people live with MS — one of the highest rates of the disease worldwide. The autoimmune disease of the central nervous system is often progressive, and affects the brain, spine and eyes, leading to vision changes, mobility and balance problems, and cognitive or memory issues.

For Kavanagh-Taylor, the diagnosis came in 2010, and meant she had to relearn how to walk.

“When you get out of the bed in the morning, can put your feet on the floor, or you can open your eyes and see normal vision, not double vision or anything like that? Then you know you’re going to have a good day,” she said.

For some, those symptoms can negatively affect their mental health. That’s why Kavanagh-Taylor chose it as this year’s focus of the walk — and because the connection between animals and mental health seemed natural, she said.

“You’re feeling down, your dog’s always there. He’s the one that understands,” said Kavanagh-Taylor. “And you always got to take them for a walk, so you’re going to get up and go.”

For those living with MS, physical struggles might not be the only symptom of the disease

For some living with a chronic illness, the weight of their disease can lead to mental health issues. That’s what Zita Kavanagh-Taylor, who lives with multiple sclerosis, wanted to highlight with her charity dog walk Paws for MS.

She decided to donate this year’s proceeds to the provincial branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, which will use them for education and programming.

Every week, said eastern regional manager John Dinn, the association gets calls from people with physical diseases looking for resources for their mental health.

For him, the connection between the two isn’t new — and neither is the positive impact animals can have on people’s wellbeing.

“Awareness is probably one of the very first things that people can benefit from. Awareness of how their mental health may be impacted by a physical condition,” said Dinn.

“We raise a lot of awareness about the connection between your mental health and physical health. And more important, we give a lot of different strategies, tips, ways you can cope, ways you can help yourself, and also inform people of what resources are out in the community.”

A middle-aged man smiles into the camera. The sign behind him says "Canadian Mental Health Association".
John Dinn is eastern regional manager with the provincial branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association in St. John’s. Dinn says physical illnesses can have a big effect on people’s mental health. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

Kavanagh-Taylor has found community in her annual walk. From the very beginning, Mount Pearl pet store Critters N’ Things has hosted the event — a no-brainer for owner Mark Winsor.

“I was all about it,” he said. “It just means so much to be able to give back. And that’s what it’s all about. Sometimes you got to give back, and there’s nothing better than giving back with something that you enjoy the most.”

Together, Winsor and Kavanagh-Taylor want to continue to give back, and to facilitate conversations about life with a chronic illness — with hopes of growing every year.

“This was only a tiny little walk for me that I dreamed up. And I thought it might last a year or two,” said Kavanagh-Taylor.

“This is a dream come true for me.”

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