Adopting a Pet May Help Fight Depression

adopt a pet

Story at-a-glance -

  • People with treatment-resistant major depressive disorder who adopted pets made major strides in their mental health, showing significant improvements in depressive symptoms compared to the beginning of the study as well as to the non-pet group
  • The benefit of pet adoption was so strong that one-third of the new pet owners no longer met the criteria for depression by the end of the study
  • Among the non-pet group, none of the patients responded or experienced disease remission
  • Pet owners view their pets as a consistent source of calming and companionship, and felt their pets intuitively understood when support was needed and could act accordingly in times of crisis

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

People with depression may benefit from adopting a pet, even in cases of treatment-resistant depression, when prior treatments have failed. Treatment-resistant depression, as its name implies, is depression that hasn’t responded to two or more prior treatments, including medications or psychological interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy.

Often, when medications fail patients begin looking for alternative approaches to get better, and animal therapy has previously been shown to be beneficial for people facing various mental conditions. Researchers from Portugal set out to determine whether adopting a pet could make a difference and were met with some exciting results.

Pet Adoption Relieves Depressive Symptoms in Treatment-Resistant Depression

The study involved 80 patients with treatment-resistant major depressive disorder (TR-MDD). Researchers suggested they adopt a pet, and 33 of them actually did (18 adopted one dog, seven adopted two dogs and seven adopted one cat).1 All of the patients continued to take medication and their symptoms of depression were measured and compared with those of a non-pet control group.

Those who adopted pets made major strides in their mental health, showing significant improvements in depressive symptoms compared to the beginning of the study as well as to the non-pet group.2 In fact, symptoms began to lessen within one month and became significant after two months. The benefit of pet adoption was so strong that one-third of the new pet owners no longer met the criteria for depression by the end of the study.

On the other hand, among the non-pet group, none of the patients responded or experienced disease remission. “Therefore, pets can be used as an effective adjuvant to pharmacotherapy with regular medical appointments,” the researchers concluded.3

Pets Provide Significant Supportive Benefits for People With Mental Health Conditions

The fact that pet ownership may offer a way to treat depression that doesn’t respond to other treatments is noteworthy, but it’s far from the first to highlight the many benefits pets bring to mental health. A meta-analysis of 17 studies, published in BMC Psychiatry, also showed the power of support that companion animals offer to people living with serious mental health problems.4

Pets were able to provide their owners with a consistent source of calming and companionship. The owners felt their pets intuitively understood when support was needed and could “act accordingly providing a depth of connection that was considered particularly useful in time of crisis.”

They were useful, too, in providing a distraction from symptoms, as owners had to keep to their pet’s routine, and helped owners develop a positive identity and sense of self not only because their pets accepted them without judgment but also because they took pride in successfully caring for them.

“Participants felt that their pets facilitated the quality and quantity of existing social interactions and forged new relationships acting as a bridging tie to emotional nourishment,” the researchers explained. “This is likely to be of increasing importance given that social isolation is both a cause and effect of mental illness and that those with mental illness are considered one of the most socially isolated social groups.”5

In choosing a pet, the bond between the owner and the pet is more important than the type. While benefits are most often attributed to owning a dog, mental health benefits can be felt from owning pets of a variety of species, from fish and hamsters to cats, horses and even llamas.

Animal-Assisted Therapy Also Provides Mental Health Gains

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend adopting a pet solely for the purpose of providing relief from depression or another mental health condition, if it’s something you already were considering the benefits to mental health are an added bonus.

Research continues to confirm the validity of animal-assisted interventions for mental health, and many of them can be gained just from interacting with animals in various settings (meaning you don’t necessarily have to become a pet owner to benefit from the healing effects of animal interactions).

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) animals typically work in non-emergency environments, such as prisons, court proceedings, nursing homes or school libraries. They may attend counseling sessions, offering a calming presence for a patient to lean on and physically pet. Psychologists have reported reductions in symptoms of 82 percent among their patients who interacted with dogs (some for as little as one week).6 And according to research published in Advances in Mind-Body Medicine journal:7

“Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has been shown to be effective in the treatment of many psychological disorders, including autism spectrum disorders, depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). AAT can be used as an adjunct to other forms of psychotherapy.”

As part of a mental-health treatment plan, AAT has been found to:

  • Increase sense of comfort and safety
  • Increase motivation
  • Enhance self-esteem
  • Increase pro-social behaviors
  • Decrease behavioral problems

Whether you’re suffering from a serious mental illness like depression or like the idea of having a constant companion to provide emotional support, adopting a pet is a decision that’s likely to change your mental health for the better.

There are some caveats to consider, such as whether the financial responsibilities of pet ownership or worry about what will happen to your pet if you’re unable to care for them will add to your anxiety, but many people find the benefits of pet ownership to outweigh the risks.

If you’d like to spend more time around animals but don’t want to commit to the long-term commitment of pet ownership, seek out other opportunities to have animals in your life, like AAT events in your community or volunteering at an animal shelter near you.