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Depression, Anxiety and Pets

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Depression, Anxiety and PetsIn the past there were a number of articles posted about the value of service dogs for those with a variety of disabilities including PTSD and Depression. However, this article will discuss the value of owning a pet, particularly a dog. This is based on the fact that not everyone is in need of a service dog. People can derive a lot of benefit from having a pet whether they suffer from depression and anxiety or they just wish to own a pet.

Some Matters to Consider Before Purchasing a Pet:

First, owning a pet is comforting and fun only for those who value animals. There is nothing intrinsic in pet ownership that yields good results. A good friend of mine is an excellent Clinical Psychologist. However, when it comes to my owning dogs (we own three Labrador Retrievers), he is completely baffled. There is nothing about pet ownership that makes any sense to him.

Second, before purchasing a pet, one must consider the expenses associated with it. In addition to food expenses,  there are often expenses for grooming and veterinary bills when illness occurs.

Third, there are some animals owned by people but that are so large that there are boarding fees involved. I know several people who own horses, not an inexpensive hobby.

Fourth, the breed of the pet is enormously important. Not all dogs and cats are the correct breed for everyone. Breeds of pets vary according to temperament, aggressiveness and durability.

At the pound or humane society, there are many worthy dogs, cats, puppies and kittens to choose from. While these are not likely to be pure bread animals, it is important to select the less aggressive and more friendly types of breeds.

For example, among kittens, those with a Siamese mixture are more likely to become very friendly. Among puppies, those with Labrador and Golden Retriever backgrounds are most likely to have a good and friendly temperament.

Fifth, part of the selection process in selecting a pet is to see how they respond when you have the chance to be with them in the pen where both the humane society and pet shops allow prospective owners to interact. As a general rule, those cats and dogs who approach you and want to play will make friendly pets who are fun to interact with at home. Those who hide and are not approachable are not likely to make good companions at home.

My Preference for Dogs:

In my opinion, dogs have several advantages over other types of pets. Because dogs have to be walked several times per day, they force the owner to leave the house.

Once having left the house with the dog, it is impossible to avoid attention. There are always some people who will stop to pet a dog, ask questions and engage in conversation.

There are some people who manage to walk their cats and I have known some of them. Horses are natural outdoor animals that are also connected with socialization as they have to be boarded and that usually involves having to interact with other people.

However, dogs are in a category that lends itself naturally and easily to living at home with its owner and having to go out for walks with the connected need to socialize with people who have or do not have their own dogs.

Advantages and Benefits of Pet Ownership:

There is a myriad of research and anecdotal article describing how pet ownership has helped people.

1. Socialization and Depression: Depression often brings with it a tendency to self isolate. Dog ownership forces people to go out and walk.

2. Anxiety Reduction: The anxieties associated with going out for many people with anxiety and phobic disorders, are often reduced by having the companionship of a dog. This is a kind of comfort that builds self confidence for people who are anxious about going out into the world.

3. Love: The connection and bond that forms between an individual and dog is invaluable. This bonding is based on a mutual relationship in which pet and owner give and take warmth, love and nurturing.

4. Health: The tactile sensations of stroking a dog and cat helps reduce anxiety and, according to some reports, even blood pressure.

5. Family and Children: Pet ownership is good not only for people living alone but for whole family systems. Dogs, cats and other pets, become full members of a family in which lots of interaction swirls around children, parents and siblings as they compete to feed, love and care for the pet. Also, pet ownership can teach children the value of life in addition to providing them with some of the responsibility of care and feeding.

A vignette:

When our children were small we went out, as a family, to purchase a puppy. It was decided that we wanted a French Poodle. Once we saw "Buttons," we all fell in love. Well, Buttons became a full fledged member of the family who set her own rules and regulations for proper behavior around the house. For example, if my wife and I had an argument, Buttons lets us know, in no uncertain terms, that conflict was unacceptable. Small as she was, she would directly intercede and bark until everyone realized that it was time for a truce. By comparison, I have known many people who told me how their much bigger dogs went and hid under the bed if there was a dispute.

So, Buttons became part of the family structure and lore. She became well known in the entire neighborhood, attracting attention of other youngsters, their parents and their dogs. Whether it was myself, my wife or one of our children who was out with Buttons, there were always people around to greet us. In fact, we used to joke that people greeted Buttons first, us second.

One more advantage:

For those who are interested, a dog provides an opportunity to add to the socialization process, by taking the dog to training classes. In many cases, these classes are free or at low cost at local pet stores or humane societies. If deeper involvement is sought, then there are classes with more skilled trainers at a higher cost. These are usually done in groups and this is where additional opportunities become available for meeting people.

In fact, for those who need a hobby, which is an excellent outlet good for general mental health, bringing you and the dog for training and competition can be a lot of fun. This is a sure way to reduce anxiety and depression.

In any case, if you are a person who loves animals, there are many wonderful reasons for owning a pet. Of course, you need not be depressed or anxious in order to have a pet. However, if you do struggle with these and other emotional difficulties and you love pets, then, you can derive even more emotional benefits from pet ownership. 

Finally, a pet can be a great stress reducer. How can you hold onto stress when you and your family are having fun with your pet? 

Your comments, experiences and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD