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Can Pets Help People With Depression? What Science Says

Written by: Kathryn Copeland

Last Updated on April 17, 2024 by Dogster Team

siberian husky dog resting his head on his owner while lying on the floor

Can Pets Help People With Depression? What Science Says

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We all know how important our pets are to us. They are family members and we love them dearly. We hear stories about pets helping people through rough times and keeping them from feeling alone due to that unconditional love. But are pets capable of helping people with depression?

There are studies that show that pets can help people with depression, but this isn’t always the case for every person.

Here, we discuss how pets can help people who are dealing with mental health problems. We also offer tips on how you can get the full benefits from your pet to help you with your depression.

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What Pets Offer When Someone Is Depressed

Anyone with a pet already knows the benefits that they can offer. A few of the positive effects that have been studied and well-documented are as follows.

They Keep Us Company

This is particularly important for people who live alone or feel lonely sometimes. A pet is there when you need someone to talk to or snuggle with.

This is also a huge reason that so many people adopted pets during the COVID-19 pandemic. A Malaysian study found that people with pets had significantly higher positive emotions, psychological well-being, and productiveness than those without pets.

Also, pets have proven repeatedly that they can sense when we are not feeling well or are distressed, and they are likely to offer you comfort in these times.

labrador dog resting its head on its owners lap
Image By: Erickson Stock, Shutterstock

They Make Us Feel Loved

Studies show that just interacting with pets can increase oxytocin levels, which aids in slowing breathing and heart rate, reducing blood pressure, and reducing stress hormones.

What this means is that pets can make us feel calm and provide us with a sense of comfort. Oxytocin is also instrumental in the development of a bond between you and your pet.

Pets also increase our dopamine and serotonin levels, which are hormones that trigger feelings of reward and pleasure. All of this adds up to pets making us feel good.


They Give Us Responsibility

Knowing that you need to get out of bed and feed your cat or take your dog outside can provide you with a regular routine and a sense of purpose. Since our pets depend on us to take care of them, it can force you to go outside or just get up and start the day.

cat owner feeding her pet cat
Image By: Milles Studio, Shutterstock

They Make Us Exercise

You can take your cat out for a walk, though it might not necessarily constitute much physical exercise. But dogs can certainly help with this.

All dogs need a walk, and some breeds need long physical workouts, which also forces you to get outside for fresh air.

study found that dog owners were 34% more likely to have at least 150 minutes of exercise weekly walking their dogs than non-dog owners. Exercise has been proven to reduce depression, anxiety, and a bad mood.


They Keep Us Healthy

Pets are known to help lower blood pressure and help with cardiovascular health. For example, the American Heart Association states that owning a pet, particularly a dog, has the potential to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

It was even found that borderline hypertensive patients saw a significant drop in blood pressure within 5 months after adopting a rescue dog.

dalmatian dog on a leash walking with the owner
Image By: absolutimages, Shutterstock

They Make Us Happy

If you own a pet, you already know firsthand how happy you can be owning a pet (though not all the time, of course). A study had 263 adults fill in an online survey, and the results were that pet owners were more satisfied with their lives than non-pet owners.


They Help Us With Our Emotional Well-Being

2015 study of patients receiving radiation therapy and chemotherapy for neck and head cancer had positive results after interacting with a therapy dog. Before the participants went in for treatment, they spent 15 minutes with a trained therapy dog.

It was discovered that the participants’ emotional and social well-being increased even though their physical well-being decreased.

therapy dog visiting young female patient in hospital
Image By: Monkey Business Images, Shutterstock

They Help Us With Depression

Certain studies showcase how pets can positively impact pet owners with depression. A 2021 study had 140 pet owners and just as many non-pet owners, and the pet owners were 41% less depressed than those without pets.

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Can Owning Pets Make Us More Depressed?

All that said, you might be surprised to learn that a few studies do show that owning pets can cause higher levels of depression.

Psychology Today discusses this, but without knowing all the participants’ situations, it’s hard to say which philosophy is correct. A 2021 study found that its pet-owning participants were more likely to be depressed than non-pet owners, and if a participant was also unemployed, they were twice as likely to be depressed. Unfortunately, the study didn’t explain why this was the case, especially since so many other studies have found the opposite to be true. Part of it could be that the unemployed participants struggled to care for their pets while dealing with a lower income.

Also, while pet ownership seems to be beneficial for many people, there are a few downsides:

  • Increased financial burden: There’s no question that pets cost money — for food, toys, bedding, veterinary care, grooming, etc. Taking care of a pet can become problematic if you’re on a fixed income.
  • Change in social life: This is geared more toward people who own dogs than cats, but you can’t go out as spontaneously as you did before you owned a pet. You must ensure that you can feed your pet and take them for a walk. You will need to arrange for pet care if you go out for long periods of time, including vacations.
  • Time and attention: Pets need a certain amount of time and attention. They won’t thrive if you’re not there enough to play or spend time with them.
  • Property damage: Whether it’s your cat chewing expensive wires or your dog knocking a pricey vase off a table, house damage adds to the financial burden of owning a pet. Certain destruction happens accidentally, but other types might occur because your pet is seeking your attention.

Owning pets isn’t necessarily for everyone — they aren’t just objects that you own. They are family members that need care, time, and attention.

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Conclusion

There’s no question that pets can keep you company and help you feel loved, particularly when you’ve been feeling down. Pets won’t necessarily cure depression, though, and some studies show that for some pet owners, their pets actually contributed to their depression to a certain degree.

But when you consider all the benefits, it shouldn’t be too surprising that generally speaking, pets can help with depression. Just the act of taking care of a pet can make a difference. The unconditional love and trust that your pet shows you can make each day seem a bit brighter.


Featured Image Credit: Benevolente82, Shutterstock

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