According to the National Network of Depression Centers depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States among people ages 15-44. Resulting in $210.5 billion in lost earnings per year due to serious mental illness, depression affects 40% of adults in the U.S. Luckily, there are numerous approaches to feeling better.  First, talk to your doctor.  Often, depression can be a symptom of underlying medical issues.  Your physician may refer you to a qualified, certified, and licensed therapist who can then help guide you through counseling and behavior modification programs that, when applied along with guidance with your medical professionals, can provide an immense amount of relief.  Exercise and a nutritious diet can help as well! But what we often overlook is the incredible impact pets have on our emotional well-being.

Studies show the positive, psychological effects of Human-Animal interactions. In the last few decades, animals in the use of therapy has greatly increased for both children and adults. Interacting with animals impacts social connection amongst people suffering with mental illness by significantly increasing trust, empathy, and a positive mood. There are also physiological effects of pet ownership. Dog owners have been reported to exhibit decreases in blood pressure and are statistically less likely to develop heart disease.

Therapy and service dogs that are trained specifically to treat your needs can help to prevent your depression from worsening.  If you live alone, caring for your pet gives you a greater sense of purpose, where you feel needed and loved, and takes your focus away from your depression.  If you or someone you know are suffering with depression, there is so much to gain from owning a pet! Here are only a couple of the numerous advantages:

Socialization

Dogs, in particular, give you motivation to converse with new individuals while on strolls or at the dog park. There is a large and tight-knit community of dog owners and being a part of it gives you that sense of belonging within that community. Socialization with others, particularly in-person socialization, has been shown to ease side effects of depression. This is particularly valid for individuals aged 50 years or more.

Exercise

Pets help you lead a healthier lifestyle. Dogs need exercise, so you are going to have to take them on walks, let them outside for play time, and you will be right there getting outdoors along with them.  A little sunshine and fresh air not only benefit your pup, but also lifts your mood.  Since dogs need consistency, a daily walking routine will give you both something to look forward to. Research has indicated that consistency in one’s schedule can help lessen feelings of anxiety and lead to better sleep schedules and over all well-being.

Unconditional Love

Pets provide a benefit that most humans tend to overlook: Unconditional love. When facing the blues, loss or sadness, or clinical depression, love and acceptance is something that is critical to lifting ones’ spirits and giving hope and a sense of belonging.  Dogs especially love to greet you when you’ve been away, and many types of pets seek love and affection from their humans, giving tenfold in return.  Quality time with a pet grants you the opportunity to experience that unconditional love and acceptance.  In contributing to the Johns Hopkins Depression and Anxiety Bulletin, Karen Swartz, MD, refers to a study that found nursing home residents in St. Louis felt less lonely when they spent quality time with a dog than when they visited a dog in a group setting. There were two groups involved in the study and in one the residents spent alone time with dogs and the other were in group settings. The group who had alone time tested much lower on the loneliness scale. They were able to voice their deep thoughts and feelings in a judgement-free zone and feel loved and supported. Never underestimate the power of unconditional love!

Depression doesn’t discriminate.  It can impact even the most “together” person at the most inopportune moments.  The good news is, pets don’t discriminate, either.  They love us even on our worst days, unconditionally and without hesitation.  So if you are feeling blue, take a moment and cuddle up next to your favorite furry friend.  You’ll be glad you did!