Can Getting A Dog Actually Ease Symptoms Of Depression? A Psychotherapist Weighs In
If while dealing with a bout of stress, anxiety, or depression you've ever thought getting a furry friend would help manage negative thoughts and feelings, there's a lot of truth to that. According to a wide body of research on happiness and stress, getting a pet—particularly a dog—is an excellent way to boost happiness. A recent study conducted out of the University of British Columbia found that dogs are particularly beneficial for stressed-out college students. After spending time with therapy dogs, the students were significantly less stressed out, had more energy, and were happier overall.
With remarkable results on the link between pets and happiness coming up in study after study, it's easy to think that getting a dog will not only help heal mental health issues but can be an extra happiness boost for those of us who are already doing pretty well in the happiness department. But when it comes to dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression, how helpful are pets really? Here's what the experts have to say.
Pets provide reliable companionship in a way humans can't.
As well-intentioned as humans may be, Alison Stone, LCSW, explains that in addition to giving us a sense of purpose in caring for something, pets provide a kind of reliable companionship that humans can't, and that's great for our mental health. "We humans are capable of disappointment, criticism, judgment, and betrayal," she explains. "For the most part, pets just want to love and be loved. Studies have shown that just 10 minutes of interacting with dogs can raise our oxytocin levels."
She explains that through oxytocin, the "bonding" hormone, we feel more calm and connected, which is quite a perk—especially considering that we're in the midst of a loneliness crisis. "We only release oxytocin through direct contact with others, so if you’re particularly isolated or depressed, having a pet can be a great way to elicit some of these feelings," she says. "Equine therapy (therapy with horses) has been shown to improve empathy, impulsivity, stress tolerance, and many other emotional/behavioral difficulties."
What to consider before getting a pet.
While pets can help most people, they aren't exactly the guaranteed happiness boost many of us wish they were. According to therapist Nathalie C. Theodore, if pets will cause any kind of financial burden, they probably won't make you happier. "Pets can be expensive. If owning a pet causes financial concerns, the stress may outweigh the benefits and make us less happy," Theodore explains.
She adds that getting a pet can add other types of stress because there's always a learning curve with anything new. "If someone is battling severe anxiety or depression, adding a pet into the mix may cause additional stress," explains Theodore. "In cases of mild or moderate mental health issues, I think a pet can certainly be helpful."
Are dogs always the way to go?
While most pets can help with happiness, dogs provide a unique happiness boost, and not because they're so loyal to their humans. They also require walking outdoors, which will lead to a clearer mind, lowered stress, and increased happiness. "Walking or jogging with your dog can be a source of stress relief or exercise in an otherwise sedentary lifestyle," explains Stone. "That could be part of why they are known for contributing to the emotional well-being of their owners."
Thinking about getting a dog? Here's another study on exactly how they can improve mental health.