Adopting a Pet Shown to Relieve Depression

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet adoption benefits

Story at-a-glance -

  • Treatment resistant major depressive disorder (TR-MDD) is a severe disease, with very low remission rates, but pet ownership helps lower rates of remission, scientists say
  • Adopting a pet significantly contributes to a sense of well-being and even enhances the effects of antidepressant medications, a study reveals
  • Even people who aren’t easily treated by antidepressant medications or psychotherapy report significant improvement in their mental health when they hang out with their pet
  • Whether or not you have problems with depression, it may be helpful to know that pet ownership has been found to help enhance self-esteem, increase motivation and even offer a sense of comfort and safety
  • Aside from dogs and cats, fish, horses and birds are other animals that can help provide a distraction from stress and anxiety, and even help remind you to exercise more

You’ve heard it before — a dog is a human’s best friend — and there are a few other thoughts those words may invoke. One might be that a furry creature with trusting eyes and a heart of gold may be the easiest individual to talk to that you’ll ever find. Another thought is that in being themselves, whether they’re goofy, placid, excitable or timid, the pet you love can be an excellent companion, often able to lift your spirits and restore a sense of calm.

In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research1 reports that adopting a pet can be so therapeutic, people suffering from severe depression have lower rates of remission. The benefits are so dramatic that even people who aren’t easily treated by antidepressant medications or psychotherapy report significant improvement in their mental health when they hang out with their pet. The study states:

“Treatment resistant major [depressive] disorder (TR-MDD) is a severe disease, with very low remission rates. The resistance to pharmacotherapy leads to the search of non-pharmacological alternative approaches. Animal therapy has been used in patients with psychiatric conditions and the results have been promising.”

While animal therapy has been used for many psychiatric conditions, the study authors noted that it hadn’t been tested clinically for patients with TR-MDD. According to Christian Jarrett, Ph.D., writer and editor of the British Psychological Society Research Digest:

“The prognosis (of TR-MDD) is not good. The low mood and emotional pain for these individuals has not lifted even though they are on a combination of antidepressant medications and may also have participated in psychotherapy.”2

Researchers assessed the effects on 33 patients who accepted the challenge to adopt a pet (of which 20 were dogs and seven were cats) among 80 who were asked. Another 33 of that number, who neither adopted a pet nor had one already, served as the control group.

Willingness to Adopt a Pet a Factor in Positive Outcomes

According to the study, all 66 patients, both with and without pets, continued taking their usual pharmacotherapy. They were all were evaluated for depressive symptoms at the beginning and at intervals of four, eight and 12 weeks using the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAM-D) and the Global Assessment of Functioning Scale to the point where their symptoms could be considered mild.

As a result, the patients belonging to the “pet group” improved “to the point where their symptoms could be considered mild,” says the UK’s Independent.3 The scientists concluded that anyone experiencing symptoms of depression should be encouraged to adopt a pet. In fact, the study authors, Dr. Jorge Mota-Pereira and Daniela Fonte from a Portuguese-based medical-psychiatric clinic, noted that adopting a pet significantly “enhanced” the effects of the participants’ antidepressant medications.

But Jarrett suggests that if the featured study was contingent on the patients’ willingness to adopt a pet, it might have skewed the test results. Further, if the people agreed to adopt pets, and the controls were also matched for baseline depression symptoms, the results may have been different in other ways:

“For instance, perhaps there was something different about the personalities or social circumstances of the pet adopters that contributed to their willingness to adopt a pet and to their higher remission rates, (raising the possibility that the pet adoption itself was not the main ‘active ingredient’ in their recovery). Future, better controlled research may be able to tease apart these possibilities.”4

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Besides Depression: Other Reasons to Adopt a Pet

According to the ASPCA, the most common sources people obtain their pets from is through a breeder (34 percent for dogs and 3 percent for cats) or animal shelter or humane society (23 percent for dogs and 31 percent for cats).5 There are also other sources where people get pets, including taking in strays or getting them from a friend or relative.

The point is that a significant number of people obtain their pets from a pet store or “backyard” breeder, and every time that happens, it contributes to the pet overpopulation. When you adopt a pet from a shelter, it frees up space for other pets, but when you get one from a pet store, it reinforces the business that is driven by money rather than caring for the animal.

Adopting your pet from a shelter is typically less expensive, and older pets often come with veterinary care done already, which also saves money. Further, they’re often housebroken and/or litterbox-trained. Many shelters provide support through advice and materials to help with training, common health problems and grooming.

Adopting a mixed-breed dog (aka “mutt”) or cat brings another dimension to pet ownership. They can serve as service dogs, because they’re every bit as trainable, and every bit as loving and loveable as purebred pets.

If you’re considering pet adoption, whether or not you have problems with depression, it may be helpful to know that pet ownership has been found to help enhance self-esteem, increase motivation and even offer a sense of comfort and safety, according to research published in Advances in Mind-Body Medicine.6

Dogs and cats aren’t the only pets that can help raise your level of well-being and stave off feelings of depression. Fish, horses and birds are other animals that can help provide a distraction from stress and anxiety, and even help remind you to exercise more. Animals can provide a surprisingly strong base of emotional support for anyone, and your new pet will benefit from relying on a loving, caring relationship with you just as much.

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