I will start by pointing out the obvious: hoping to help depression should never be the only reason to get a pet. I’m also assuming that you like animals, are capable of looking after a pet and are looking for other benefits of pet ownership, like companionship. It’s also preferable to rescue a pet from a shelter, but I refuse to judge anyone who buys pets from responsible breeders. I’m assuming that readers would also take practicalities like finance and work hours into account when deciding whether to have a pet and when deciding on which type or breed of animal to get. However, this post is not about the pros and cons of pets in general – it’s about pets and depression.
There is considerable proof that pets are good for mental health. There are groups who arrange to take dogs (and sometimes other animals) into hospitals and residential homes because interacting with animals has many benefits for humans. Every so often, you will come across news reports saying that a new study has discovered that people with pets are happier/less stressed/in better mental health. There is also the intuitive feeling, present in all animal lovers, that having a pet will improve your life.
Full disclosure: although I had wanted my own dog since I was a very young child, a major reason for my getting one was that I thought it would help my depression. Which is why I feel qualified to write this post.
The most important thing to bear in mind is that a pet is not a miracle cure. You can’t expect a cute puppy to dramatically improve your mental health overnight. You should also consider that the responsibility of pet ownership puts a lot of pressure on you, which can be detrimental to your mental health. I advise anyone with mental health problems to ensure that they have a strong support network in place before they think about getting a pet. If your mental illness worsens, who will look after the pet? In my case, I live with my parents and could rely on them for practical and emotional support.
In my experience, receiving the unconditional love of a dog is invaluable. Taking care of my dog, Roxie, gave my life a sense of purpose and – in the long term – boosted my self-esteem. During the darkest times, she gave me a reason to live. But there were still dark times. Roxie did not cure my depression. She improved my life in general, but the effects on my mental health are difficult to determine.
When she died in September 2013, the day before her 10th birthday, my mental health was better than it had been since I was a young child, but Roxie can’t take all the credit: antidepressants, drama therapy, a depression group and great friends all helped. I was devastated by her death, but strong enough to cope. If she had died when she was much younger and my depression was worse, I dread to think what might have happened. That’s something else to bear in mind when you consider getting a pet: you will have to deal with their death.
I can’t, in all conscience, recommend getting a pet as an effective way of helping depression or any other mental illness. But neither can I say it’s a terrible idea. Just over a month after Roxie’s unexpected death, I got a puppy – another springer spaniel, in fact. While my mental health has improved enough to make me less reliant on my dog as a reason to live, he certainly forces me to make positive changes in my life. Even having to leave the house every day to walk him means a lot – especially when I faced my anxiety and took him out by myself earlier this year, something I had not done since Roxie was young. He is sweet and very affectionate, which makes me feel loved and valued. When I wake up or come home from somewhere, he is ecstatic to see me. These things mean a lot.
In conclusion, pets can have positive effects on your mental health – but that should be just one of many considerations. Don’t decide on a whim; take your time planning and researching. Discuss the idea with people close to you. Borrow someone else’s pet to see how you get on. Above all, never set out with high expectations when you get a pet – it’s not fair on the pet and it’s not fair on you.