Can Pets Lower Your Depression?

Research is clear that a strong social network offers a good line of defense against depression. But do pets count? Most people consider their pets members of the family. For people who live alone, their pets might even be their whole family. And studies are demonstrating that pet ownership has benefits for people’s physical and mental health. Depending on your lifestyle and your relationship with your furry friend, a pet might have a positive impact on your depression in several ways. 

The Power of Touch

Being “touch deprived” can lead to a variety of disorders, including depression. Most studies about touch have been done on the power of human touch, but for many people the physical affection they give and receive to their pets is just as important. Petting or cuddling with an animal is a way to relieve “skin hunger” and stimulate the parts of the brain that are sensitive to touch. Even a cat napping in your lap or a dog sitting by your feet and leaning against your leg is enough to create a sense of comfort and connection. 

Thinking of Others

Taking responsibility for an animal is a way to move outside of yourself, and tending to their needs can force you to leave a negative spiral of thoughts several times a day. For many people, just knowing someone depends on them and that they are capable of caring for another living creature is uplifting to their mood and self-esteem. Being aware of another living thing that depends on his for its survival may be enough to help draw a person out of the self-absorbed thinking that aggravates depression.

Structure and Exercise

It’s well-established that people with depression or anxiety benefit from regular exercise. Unfortunately, it’s very hard for people to motivate themselves to exercise in general, and even harder for people in the grip of depression. Among pets, dogs are particularly good and pulling people off the sofa. Chasing after an active puppy or meeting the exercise needs of a grown dog can provide the extra motivation that’s needed. People who suffer from depression while unemployed will also benefit from the routines of pet ownership. It’s harder to lose track of time when a demanding furry friend needs to be fed, walked and cared for. 

A Sense of Connection

For people who love animals, pets can provide a strong sense of connection. Many people talk to their pets, and learn to understand the animal’s body language in return. Dogs are pack animals and like social connection as much as humans do; they will always greet you when you arrive home, want to be in the same room with you, sit near you, and make eye contact as often as you are willing. Cats are not pack animals and they vary in their need for connection, but some are very social. 

Laughter is Real Medicine

The antics of a pet can cause you to smile or even laugh out loud regularly. The effects of laughter as a therapy for depression are well-documented. According to one study that focused on an elderly population, “Laughter therapy is considered to be useful, cost-effective and easily accessible intervention that has positive effects on depression, insomnia, and sleep quality in the elderly.” A Korean study on breast cancer survivors concluded that “The results showed that laughter therapy was effective in increasing the quality of life and resilience in breast cancer survivors.” That study wasn’t able to prove an impact of laughter on depression, but given the low cost and lack of negative side effects, laughing at your animals is still worth a try.

Pet ownership as a remedy for depression hasn’t been tested extensively, although the subject has been raised in a few small but promising studies with special populations like AIDS patients and the elderly.  But given what we know about the effects of companionship, exercise, laughter, and physical touch, a loving relationship with a pet should be powerful tool in the fight against depression.