By Dr. David Woo - September 10, 2021
Research has shown that having a pet can help with depression symptoms. In addition to helping ease mild symptoms of depression, pet companionship can also ease feelings of loneliness, encourage exercise (in turn improving physical health), and help improve feelings of worth. You may be wondering, “If I’m managing symptoms of depression, should I get a pet?”
How Human-Animal Interaction Helps Reduce Depression Symptoms
Research tells us that human-animal interaction, specifically with dogs, can increase the level of certain hormones involved in regulating mental health, including oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins. This study also points out that these effects are stronger when a person interacts with their own dog, as opposed to an unfamiliar dog.(1)
Caring for an animal can also help build a person’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem. The ability to care for an animal builds reassurance that one is capable of caring for another being as well as themselves.(2)
Keep in mind that a pet does not have to be a dog or a cat. If you have an allergy to dogs or cats, or if you prefer another pet, animals such as rabbits, birds, fish, and reptiles can also provide emotional support. Studies show that birds, such as canaries, that allow for interaction and petting, can improve quality of life and reduce depression in elderly patients.(1)
While complementary treatments, such as animal therapy, can help patients manage depression symptoms during treatment, they should not be used as a replacement to primary treatment.
Pet Therapy is a Complementary Treatment
While animal-assisted activities may help relieve depression symptoms, getting a pet should not be a substitute for medical treatment. If you have symptoms of depression, it’s important to see your doctor.
When you see your doctor about depression, they will perform diagnostic testing, which typically includes questionnaires, to determine whether you have depression and, if so, what type. Your doctor may prescribe medication that can help with your symptoms, called antidepressants. Antidepressants are effective in relieving symptoms for many people, especially those with moderate, severe, and chronic depression.(3)
Getting an early diagnosis of depression and starting depression treatment early on gives patients the best chance at achieving remission and living symptom-free.
If Your Current Depression Treatment Plan is Not Working, Consider TMS
If you’re currently being treated for depression and have not seen improvement, or if your symptoms have worsened, talk to your doctor about trying a different treatment. A new medication-free treatment, called transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS, is clinically proven to help people with depression symptoms when antidepressants don’t.
TMS is an outpatient procedure that uses magnetic pulses to electrically stimulate underactive neurons (nerve cells) in the brain. This is different from antidepressants that chemically stimulate underactive neurons.
1. Beetz A, Uvnäs-Moberg KJulius H and Kotrschal K. Psychosocial and Psychophysiological Effects of Human-Animal Interactions: The Possible Role of Oxytocin. Front Psychol. 2012;3:234. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3408111/?report=classic. Accessed August 23, 2021.
2. Grenley, Greer. How Dogs Can Help with Depression. Published February 02, 2018. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/February-2018/How-Dogs-Can-Help-with-Depression. Accessed August 24, 2021.
3. Depression: How effective are antidepressants? InformedHealth.org — Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG). Published January 28, 2015. Updated June 18, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK361016/. Accessed August 24, 2021.