Pets for Depression and Health
Could a kitten’s purr or a dog’s wagging tail help with your depression? It might.
“Pets offer an unconditional love that can be very helpful to people with depression,” says Ian Cook, MD, a psychiatrist and director of the Depression Research and Clinic Program at UCLA.
Studies show that animals can reduce tension and improve mood. Along with treatment, pets can help some people with mild to moderate depression feel better. If you’re depressed, here’s a rundown of how pets could help.
- Uncomplicated love. Are your relationships with family and loved ones complicated and frayed? A pet can be a great antidote. “With a pet, you can just feel,” says Teri Wright, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Santa Ana, Calif. “You don’t have to worry about hurting your pet’s feelings or getting advice you don’t want.”
- Responsibility. You might not think you can take care of a pet right now. Taking care of yourself may seem hard enough. But experts say that adding a little responsibility can help. It adds a new and positive focus to your life. “Taking care of a pet can help give you a sense of your own value and importance,” Cook says. It will remind you that you are capable — that you can do more than you might think.
- Activity. Are you barely getting off the couch these days? You need to get more physical activity. Pets can help. “If you have a dog, that dog needs to be walked,” Cook says. A little extra physical activity is good for your physical and mental health.
- Routine. Having a daily schedule helps people with depression. An animal’s natural routine — waking you in the morning, demanding food or walks — can help you stay on track.
- Companionship. Depression can isolate you. It can make you pull back from your friends and loved ones. If you have a pet, you’re never alone. That can really make a difference.
- Social interaction. Having a pet can gently push you to get more social contact. You might chat with others while walking your dog at the park or waiting at the vet. Pets are natural icebreakers, and other pet owners love to talk about their animals.
- Touch. Studies show that people feel better when they have physical contact with others. Pets offer something similar. There’s something naturally soothing about petting a cat on your lap. Studies have shown that petting a dog can lower your heart rate, too.
- Better health. Research has found that owning a dog can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, and boost levels of feel-good chemicals in the brain. One study of Chinese women found that dog owners exercised more often, slept better, reported better fitness levels and fewer sick days, and saw their doctors less often than people without dogs.
The Drawbacks of Getting a Pet for Depression
Pets aren’t for everyone with depression, Wright says. If you’re depressed, think carefully before getting a pet. If you have a loved one with depression, don’t assume that surprising him or her with a kitten will help. It could make things worse. Here are four things to ask yourself before getting a pet to help ease depression.
- Are you comfortable with animals? A lot of people helped by pets had them as children. They’re used to having an animal as a source of comfort. If you’ve never had a pet, it may be less likely to help now.
- Will having a pet make you worry? Dwelling on death is a common sign of depression. If getting a pet just means that you’ll worry constantly about it dying, that won’t help, Wright says.
- Is your depression too intense right now? “Taking care of a pet is not unlike taking care of a small child,” Wright says. “If your depression is so severe that you can’t take care of an animal, it’s not a good idea to get one.”
- Can you afford a pet? Caring for pets can be expensive. The ASPCA estimates that in the first year, a cat can cost more than $1,000 and a dog up to almost $1,850.
Even if getting a cat or dog isn’t wise right now, other animals could help. Birds can be surprisingly affectionate and cost only $270 a year in care. While you may not want to snuggle with a fish or a turtle, caring for them could also improve your mood. It creates responsibility and a new focus. Studies have shown that watching fish can lower your pulse and ease muscle tension too.