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How Pets Can Help Fight Depression

Reading time | 4 mins

For years, I struggled with depression. I tried dozens of medications, attended countless sessions of talk therapy, and tinkered with my diet and exercise. I was doing better. But I still wasn’t in the clear.

There were still times when my mood spiraled down. I spent many hours lying in the fetal position.

Then I found a new secret weapon against depression. He was a small scruffy dog named Ollie.

I had no idea a funny-looking animal could have such superpowers. But Ollie helped me cover that last mile into recovery.

Ollie (2003-2019), Running Through a Field in the Netherlands

My dog helped me through the dark days of depression

My family didn’t get Ollie to help with my depression — we just always wanted a dog.

As it turned out, Ollie helped me to manage my depression symptoms. The main secret to his success? He was a finely tuned, unconditional love machine.

Ollie was at his best when I was at my worst. He didn’t look down on me at my lowest points. He loved me just the same.

He actually loved me more when I was down. I was usually in bed. This gave him a good chance to jump up and snuggle me. He sniffed at my head or licked my face when I cried.

Ollie didn’t seem to mind the ugly truth. I may have been too depressed to talk to anyone or to do anything. But I was never too depressed to cuddle with Ollie.

Ollie was the ultimate security blanket when things felt totally hopeless. Just petting his head and listening to him breathe made me feel a little better.

The weirdest thing of all? I never explained myself to Ollie. Yet, I felt like he understood what I was going through.

Ollie with his owners

Why might pets help with depression?

I learned that my experience was far from unique as I recovered from depression and entered the field of psychology. It wasn’t just Ollie. And it wasn’t just dogs. A variety of animal companions seem to benefit many people who struggle with depression.

There are several reasons why this may be the case. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pets:

  • Teach us compassion and a sense of responsibility. We know our pets are helpless and depend on us for food, shelter, and water. Owning a pet shows us we can care for another living thing when we might feel totally incompetent. That can give us a reason to live.
  • Decrease stress. Pets are physical creatures. It can be soothing to cuddle with a cat or dog. It distracts us from negative thoughts and feelings.
  • Help us to feel less alone. Dogs can provide constant, unconditional love. They accept us for who we are when we might feel judged by other humans. And they’re just plain cute. Ollie boosts my mood with his silly antics.
  • Encourage us to exercise. Taking a dog on a walk gets us moving. Plenty of studies have shown that exercise may help reduce depression symptoms. Walks are also a good time to collect our thoughts. They give us structure and routines if we’re feeling unmoored.
  • Give us opportunities to socialize. Research suggests that socialization can be a powerful tool in the fight against depression. Many people find that they meet other dog owners on walks with their furry friends.

The link between pets and our health

A growing chorus of research links pet ownership to better mental health. A survey of 2,000 pet owners done by the nonprofit Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) found that nearly 3 out of 4 people say that having a pet improved their mental health.

Scientific research tells a similar story. A 2018 review of 17 studies suggested pet ownership may help with a variety of mental health conditions.

It found that pets can help distract people from upsetting mental health symptoms such as:

  • hearing voices
  • having panic attacks
  • having suicidal ideation

The intuition that our pets can understand our feelings has surprising scientific backing.

A 2016 study found that pet dogs may be sensitive to some emotions in human faces. Another 2019 paper found that dogs — but not wolves — appear to have developed “expressive eyebrows” to trigger a nurturing response in humans. This research makes sense.

The researchers explain that dogs evolved in close quarters with humans and were rewarded when they correctly read human behavior and emotions. These skills help them figure out when the next walk or treat might be coming. Remember this the next time your dog stares deeply into your eyes.

It’s not just our mental health that benefits from animal companionship.

The CDC says that pet ownership may decrease blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels. Research the American Heart Association conducted found that pet ownership may protect against cardiovascular disease.

Understanding the limits of pet ownership

This all may sound amazing. Maybe even too good to be true.

Pets can’t replace tried-and-true medical treatments for depression. It’s still essential to continue therapy and take the medications your doctor prescribes.

It’s also important to recognize that pet ownership is a big commitment. It costs money and requires considerable time to tend to a pet’s many needs.

It’s OK if you love dogs or cats and can’t commit to or afford one right now. Consider trying pet sitting.

I can’t guarantee you Ollie-like results if you bring a pet into your life. But if you do decide a furry friend is the right fit for your life, you probably won’t regret it!

For more information on how to manage depression, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team. 

NPS-US-NP-00591 MARCH 2020