-- Sigmund Freud
“There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.”
-- Bern Williams
I don’t know about the whole face licking puppy thing – being a cat lady and all – but I do know that I tend to feel better when I get to spend time with my pets. Research has shown that stroking a dog or a cat can lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce anxiety, and can boost one’s levels of serotonin and dopamine (the “feel good” brain chemicals). Watching fish can lower one’s pulse and ease muscle tension, and exposure to an aviary full of songbirds has been found to lower depression in hospitalized elderly men.
There are many ways in which pet ownership can help prevent or reduce mild to moderate depression in people. Here are some of the ways noted in multiple online articles.
Companionship/unconditional love. Depression can lead to isolation when we withdraw from family and friends, and by turning away from the people who can support us, we compound the depression. Pets are a good intervention. Interactions with our pets don’t leave us feeling unloved, misunderstood, judged, looked down upon, pitied, inferior or any other number of negative emotions we can project onto others. Pets just love us for who we are, or maybe sometimes for what we feed them, but we can pretend it’s us they like and they won’t tell us otherwise. They won’t tell us anything, they are just there for us, with us, unconditionally.
Responsibility. Sometimes it seems we can barely take care of ourselves but, unless the depression is really severe, we remain able to care for a pet and that helps us feel capable as we tend to the needs of another. It also gives us something positive to focus on, and helps get us out of our own heads for a while.
Routine. In tandem with responsibility of pet ownership, comes the routine of continual care. Feeding times, walks, and other needs help to create a schedule to follow which helps when coping with depression.
Physical contact. Touch is important to our feelings of connectedness, and being able to pet an animal helps to fill that need. This is where dogs and cats take a lead over pet goldfish. The feel of fur is more soothing than slimy scales. On the other hand, a goldfish isn’t ever going to “touch” you back with claws or teeth. So a case can be made for fins and gills over feet and fangs.
I hate to admit it, but dogs bring additional benefits in fighting depression. Because they need to be walked, they encourage physical activity which is beneficial on many levels. And because they get you out and moving, you are more likely to have the opportunity for social interaction. Dog walkers are more prone to eliciting contact and conversation from passersby than are people walking alone. No one mentioned the effects of people walking goldfish...
Pet therapy is a recognized form of psychotherapy for treating depression. Trained animals are used to provide interaction between patients and pets in facilities where pets are otherwise not allowed. Just the nearness of pets tends to calm people down, slowing and softening their speech, and offering a distraction that shifts people’s attention outwards and away from ruminating. While pets aren’t a replacement for other depression treatments, they can certainly be a beneficial add-on.
Pet ownership isn’t for everyone, however. Pets require time, attention and responsibility which can become overwhelming depending on one’s level of depression. Some people just aren’t comfortable around pets. There are financial considerations, as there will be costs for food, veterinary care, supplies, licensing, etc. Pets can also cause destruction or injuries if not properly tended. So it’s not wise to foist a pet off on someone to “cheer them up” if they are not in agreement, or if it hasn’t been carefully considered.
I’m thankful for my two cats. I’ve experienced the comfort and companionship they can provide. I’ve had mornings where the only impetus for getting up was their incessant meowing to be fed or let out. And I’ve experienced times of loneliness, when it seemed that my cat just knew it was the right thing to climb into my lap.
Garrison Keillor is quoted as saying that “Cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a purpose.”
I know better.