Research shows that they do.
Spending time with an animal companion decreases stress indicators like cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure and inspires you to engage in mood-boosting activities like exercise, social engagement, and spontaneous play.
Researchers believe that the neurochemical oxytocin plays an important role in the effect animals have on mood. Oxytocin is released by eye contact and other interactions between people and animals who trust and care for one another. Research shows increased oxytocin results in higher levels of self-esteem and generosity and lower levels of depression.
It’s clear that getting a pet is a great idea if you’re depressed. But which are the best pets for depression?
Let’s find out!
Are Dogs Good for Depression?
Most of the research about how animals improve your mood focuses on dogs. Our long history with these deeply social creatures makes them not only our most beloved companion animals, but the best studied. In addition to increasing your levels of oxytocin, research shows that dogs improve mental health in humans in many other measurable ways.
In addition to being affectionate, dogs are active animals. Their exercise requirements will make you more likely to get out and play and go for walks. Exercise is one of the best ways to fight depression, making dogs doubly therapeutic for depressed owners.
If you’ve decided to get a dog, do your research first. It’s a major commitment to bring one home, and the positive effects of pet ownership can be minimized by the stressors of choosing the wrong pet. Understanding which breed is the best match for you is the key to success.
The Best Dog Breeds for People with Depression
Many breeds make good therapy dogs for depression. Which one is the best for you depends not only on your personality but on your life circumstances. For example, high-energy breeds like huskies and border collies are great for people who are able to meet their needs for exercise but may overwhelm people who can only manage a couple of walks a day. If you have allergies, choosing a hypoallergenic dog like a poodle or schnauzer is very important.
Dog breeds specifically known to be good for depression include:
- Small low-to-medium energy dogs that are also good choices for apartment dwellers, like French bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles spaniels. Their adaptability and charming natures make them easy companions.
- Pugs are frequently mentioned as good for depression due to their humorous personalities and the strong bonds they develop with their owners.
- Other funny dogs that easily inspire smiles include corgis and Boston terriers.
- Yorkshire terriers are another small breed known for their devotion—a Yorkie was even the first documented therapy dog!
When you’re depressed, it can be hard to connect. This is important to consider when you’re looking for an emotional support animal. Aloof dog breeds like Shiba Inus might make you feel rejected if you’re having an especially hard day. Choosing an affectionate breed can ensure that your pet will break through your emotional shell.
Golden and Labrador retrievers are devoted as well as demonstrative. They’re also noted to be some of the most gentle dog breeds, which is important to consider when dealing with the raw pain that often comes with depression.
The Benefits of Choosing a Rescue Dog
Keep in mind that breed isn’t the only consideration when choosing a dog. Rescue and shelter dogs offer many unique benefits. Knowing that you saved a dog from a hard or lonely life will immediately make you feel good. Taking home an adult dog is great when you don’t have the energy or patience for training—many rescue dogs are already housetrained! The incredible bond you form with a rescue dog will change how you feel about yourself and inspire new confidence. You might find your rescue dog inspires you to pursue new activities.
As with any dog, success depends on doing your research and making sure you don’t bring home an animal whose special needs are too much for you to take on. Despite the stereotype, most rescue dogs are well-adjusted. Rescue organizations go to great lengths to socialize dogs through foster placements and match dogs and people. Telling the rescue about your needs, personality, and level of experience with dogs will help them match you with the perfect companion.
The Best Dogs for People with Both Anxiety and Depression
Depression and anxiety often manifest together. Yet while they frequently are comorbid conditions, the presence of anxiety symptoms can dramatically change how your depression manifests. Anxiety can complicate the usual tendency to feel more emotionally numb or flat when you’re depressed and make it even easier to feel overwhelmed.
This means when you’re choosing a companion animal for anxiety, you should consider potential anxiety triggers. This can include how much a certain breed tends to bark and how energetic or domineering a dog is. You don’t want to get a dog that makes you feel overwhelmed in the one space that feels safe when you’re anxious and depressed.
Dogs with the best temperament for an anxious owner are calm, responsive, and easy to train. These breeds include poodles, Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, schnauzers, and Cavalier King Charles spaniels. You can get a specially trained service dog if you need an animal to help guide you through panic attacks or get one on your own if you just want a steady companion.
The Best Dog Breeds for PTSD and Trauma Recovery
People commonly experience depression as a comorbid condition with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trauma and depression share symptoms that can worsen when they co-occur. These include sleep problems and difficulties with concentration and other cognitive tasks. Trauma-related flashbacks can make it hard for people to navigate daily life, and it’s even harder when they come with the low mood and energy of depression.
This is why it can make a huge difference to take home an emotional support or service dog for PTSD. Service dogs that respond to and interrupt symptoms of anxiety and panic require special training and are obtained through service dog organizations. Breeds that are good service dogs for PTSD include poodles, Labrador and Golden retrievers, German shepherds, and collies.
If you don’t need a trained service animal, you can choose from a wider number of breeds for an emotional support animal. When choosing a support dog for PTSD, consider elements like trainability and excitability. Dog traits that are especially helpful for trauma survivors are calm, watchful, and protective. Good guard dogs known to help people feel safer include German shepherds, Rottweilers, and Staffordshire bull terriers.
Can a Cat Be a Therapy Animal?
While dogs hog the spotlight, cats are also excellent companion animals for people with depression. Scientific research has shown that there are as many benefits to owning a cat as there are to owning a dog. If you’re overwhelmed by the activities of daily life, which is not uncommon when you’re depressed, a cat’s relative independence and simpler care needs can make a feline the perfect match for you.
While cats can’t be trained as service animals, they are great therapy and emotional support animals. Intelligent and intuitive, cats are more engaged and responsive with people than they get credit for being. As with dogs, spending time with cats increases oxytocin and reduces stress.
The Healing Power of Purring
One unique benefit cats offer to depressed owners is the power of their purring. Cats make this characteristic sound by pushing air through their vocal chords. Cat lovers know this behavior is a sign of a calm and happy cat but it’s also something cats use to find one another, navigate their environments, and communicate their needs. Cat owners learn to recognize the different purrs cats make when they are asking for food or just relaxing.
Regardless of the reason for it, purring has been scientifically proven to have healing effects. Scientists observed cats who purred after experiencing stress or trauma and found that purring promotes bone growth and tissue regeneration. These effects appear to relate to the frequency of the vibrations produced by purring. For humans, purring has been shown not only to be calming but to reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease.
Does My Cat Know I’m Depressed?
Cats get a bad rap as being antisocial creatures. They’re mythologized as aloof and indifferent to human beings and their feelings. This simply isn’t true. Research shows that cats pick up on human emotion and respond to facial expressions and other emotional cues. Cats recognize your voice, understand and follow your gestures, and look to you for guidance in situations that are new or stressful for them.
Cats form strong bonds with people. Research shows that cats display more stress-related behavior when they are separated from their owners and that they are more playful, confident, and exploratory when they’re in the room with their owner. In other words, they like the people who adopt them and prefer them to others. They are intuitive and often know exactly when you need them to come up and snuggle next to you.
How Do I Choose the Right Cat?
As with dogs, there are different cat breeds with different personalities. Some of the cat breeds that make good emotional support animals include the popular and even-tempered American Shorthair, the loyal and trainable Siamese, and the intelligent and affectionate Ragdoll and Maine Coon breeds.
However, breed isn’t as straightforward with cats as it is with dogs. Individual cats can vary wildly in temperament, even when they’re from the same litter. This is why it’s important to spend time with different cats at the shelters, rescue organizations, or breeders you plan to get them from and to get to know an individual cat before taking it home.
There are several other factors to consider when you choose a cat. Do you want a cat with short or long hair? Would you be interested in having more than one if you meet a cat that’s strongly bonded with another one? What feline personality best suits you?
Perhaps the most important factor to consider is a cat’s energy level. Some cats have boundless energy and love to spend most of their time running, climbing, and exploring. Others are more laid back and enjoy spending most of their time lounging in the sun or in a person’s lap. The best way to tell is to spend time with a cat and to ask the people responsible for its adoption about its demeanor.
What Other Animals Are Good for Mental Health?
It’s not just dogs and that are good for depression. Animals in general are therapeutic. Any form of interaction with another being can counteract the isolating tendency of the illness and the routines of animal care can structure your day when you might otherwise feel lost.
The reason animals are good for depression is that interacting with them inspires positive feelings. For this reason, the most important factors to consider when choosing a therapy or general companion animal are what animals you’re able to care for where you currently live and which ones inspire devotion and excitement in you.
How Horses Help People Heal
Horses and humans share a special connection. Like cats and dogs, horses recognize human emotion and respond to it. Miniature horses are actually the only animal other than dogs recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a service animal.
In fact, horses’ sensitivity to human emotion has allowed people to develop an entire therapeutic discipline, equine-assisted therapy (EAT), that taps into it. People who engage in EAT learn from how a horse responds to them as they engage in simple tasks and contact with the horse. As people interact with the therapy horses, they learn to identify their feelings and process them, becoming more confident and trusting in the process.
Few people have the space or means to own their own horses, but there are many other ways to interact with these amazing animals. In addition to signing up for EAT, horseback riding lessons, or other horse-related activities, you can often volunteer at local organizations that help and care for horses in need. Even if all you’re doing is brushing or petting them, interacting with these powerful and intuitive animals will make you feel empowered, too.
The Mental Health Benefits of Small Pets
If you have pet restrictions where you live, significant allergies to dogs and cats, or other reasons that these pets won’t work for you, consider bringing home a small pet. Small mammals like ferrets, rats, and guinea pigs can be affectionate, intelligent, and curious, and interact with you in many ways that a dog or cat would. Rabbits are gentle and respond well to human touch, making them a good choice for a therapy animal.
Birds are another animal that can make a surprising but effective choice as an emotional support animal. Research shows that their brains are remarkably similar to human brains. They are highly social, show empathy, and grieve. Birds with complex songs and birds that can mimic the human voice like parrots and magpies enjoy interacting vocally with humans, which can be engaging and help you develop a strong bond with your bird. One family was able to heal after tragedy due to the relationship they developed with an adopted magpie.
Even animals that don’t form strong bonds with humans can make good therapy animals. Research has shown that caring for and watching fish lowers blood pressure, reduces anxiety, and improves mood. Any animal that is interesting to watch and inspires you to focus on and interact with it will engage your brain in positive ways, meaning that even pet snakes and lizards can help you counteract depression. There is even a particular species of lizard, the tegu, that is known for being an affectionate and social pet!
The Power of the Wild
While wild animals aren’t pets, spending time around them can yield as many benefits as having a pet of your own. Research shows that spending time in natural environments has a significant positive impact on mental health, and this is only enhanced when you go somewhere that you can observe wildlife. The specific act of birdwatching, whether in your backyard or at a nature sanctuary, has also been shown to have mental health benefits.
Some animals hold a special magic for us. Wolves are one animals that deeply inspires many people. This has led to the development of a new form of animal-assisted therapy: wolf therapy. Animal sanctuaries like Lockwood Animal Rescue Center in Los Angeles have developed programs that help veterans with PTSD heal through bonding with wolves.
Another wild animal that holds a special place in the human heart is the dolphin. These intelligent, graceful, and extremely social creatures often choose to interact with people when they encounter them in the wild. Research has shown that dolphin therapy, in which people swim and interact with dolphins, helps people feel less depressed.
Regardless of whether you adopt a pet, volunteer at a rescue organization, or put a bird feeder in your backyard, interacting with animals will give you an edge in your fight against depression. Animals remind us of what’s best in us and of simple truths that defy the logic of the depressed mind. Your life changes the day you bring home a pet, and you will probably forever remember your first day with your new pet as a turning point in your recovery.