The Power of Pets to Help Your Depression

How 'Fido' Can Fight Depression Symptoms

The Power of Pets to Help Your Depression

By Depression Connect StaffA Published at On Tuesday Views 19,532 Comments 8 Likes 21

A very depressed client had just finished his first meeting with Dr. Gary McClain, a community advocate here on Depression Connect and a licensed counselor. As McClain and his client stood in the office waiting area, an office mate’s dog – normally a shy animal that barely lets people pet him – ran up to them. For some reason, the dog was all over McClain’s client, who sat down on the floor and played with the animal. 

McClain’s client smiled and laughed through his tears, and said: "I see you guys have a therapy dog on the staff." 

This story, shared by McClain on a discussion thread on Depression Connect, exemplifies what many of you have also shared: the power of pets to improve mood and lessen depression.

It is also supported by several studies that examine the psychological and mental health benefits associated with pets. According to one study, pet owners are 40 percent less likely to develop anxiety and 30 percent less likely to develop depression. 

Other research has demonstrated the positive effects of pet ownership on several aspects of mental health, including social support, companionship, self-esteem and integration with one’s community. 

Pets force a depressed person to remain active even when his or her depression flares up, in order to care for the animal. This has an added benefit if you have a dog you must walk, which increases physical activity – an important protective factor for depression – and reduces feelings of loneliness by acting as a catalyst for social interactions and conversations with strangers. 

Then, there is simply the power of pets in improving mood – a result of their often unconditional devotion and love. The positive attention a pet offers can relieve stress and negative thoughts, and many people report that their pets are particularly generous with their adoration when they sense their owner is down.

Pet ownership for depression is not without caveats, however. Psychologists say pets help most when symptoms of depression are mild or moderate; if one is already so depressed they struggle to take care of themselves, they likely can’t provide the necessary care for a pet. 

Another caveat: If someone is not a "pet person," getting one is not likely to help improve their life. Finally, consider the expense of a pet and look for a species and breed that fits your temperament, lifestyle and space.

If you don’t feel like you can handle pet ownership or are unsure where to start, don’t fear: Researchers have found that interaction with pets — even if they don't belong to you — can still offset feelings of depression. Try volunteering to work with animals, like dog walking at your local shelter. This would allow you to test the water first, and to meet people and gain the experience and skills you'll need to look after a pet.

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