For years, I struggled with depression. I tried dozens of medications, attended countless sessions of talk therapy, and tinkered with my diet and exercise. I was doing better. But I still wasn’t in the clear.
There were still times when my mood spiraled down. I spent many hours lying in the fetal position.
Then I found a new secret weapon against depression. He was a small scruffy dog named Ollie.
I had no idea a funny-looking animal could have such superpowers. But Ollie helped me cover that last mile into recovery.
Ollie (2003-2019), Running Through a Field in the Netherlands
My family didn’t get Ollie to help with my depression — we just always wanted a dog.
As it turned out, Ollie helped me to manage my depression symptoms. The main secret to his success? He was a finely tuned, unconditional love machine.
Ollie was at his best when I was at my worst. He didn’t look down on me at my lowest points. He loved me just the same.
He actually loved me more when I was down. I was usually in bed. This gave him a good chance to jump up and snuggle me. He sniffed at my head or licked my face when I cried.
Ollie didn’t seem to mind the ugly truth. I may have been too depressed to talk to anyone or to do anything. But I was never too depressed to cuddle with Ollie.
Ollie was the ultimate security blanket when things felt totally hopeless. Just petting his head and listening to him breathe made me feel a little better.
The weirdest thing of all? I never explained myself to Ollie. Yet, I felt like he understood what I was going through.
Ollie with his owners
I learned that my experience was far from unique as I recovered from depression and entered the field of psychology. It wasn’t just Ollie. And it wasn’t just dogs. A variety of animal companions seem to benefit many people who struggle with depression.
There are several reasons why this may be the case. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pets:
A growing chorus of research links pet ownership to better mental health. A survey of 2,000 pet owners done by the nonprofit Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) found that nearly 3 out of 4 people say that having a pet improved their mental health.
Scientific research tells a similar story. A 2018 review of 17 studies suggested pet ownership may help with a variety of mental health conditions.
It found that pets can help distract people from upsetting mental health symptoms such as:
The intuition that our pets can understand our feelings has surprising scientific backing.
A 2016 study found that pet dogs may be sensitive to some emotions in human faces. Another 2019 paper found that dogs — but not wolves — appear to have developed “expressive eyebrows” to trigger a nurturing response in humans. This research makes sense.
The researchers explain that dogs evolved in close quarters with humans and were rewarded when they correctly read human behavior and emotions. These skills help them figure out when the next walk or treat might be coming. Remember this the next time your dog stares deeply into your eyes.
It’s not just our mental health that benefits from animal companionship.
The CDC says that pet ownership may decrease blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels. Research the American Heart Association conducted found that pet ownership may protect against cardiovascular disease.
This all may sound amazing. Maybe even too good to be true.
Pets can’t replace tried-and-true medical treatments for depression. It’s still essential to continue therapy and take the medications your doctor prescribes.
It’s also important to recognize that pet ownership is a big commitment. It costs money and requires considerable time to tend to a pet’s many needs.
It’s OK if you love dogs or cats and can’t commit to or afford one right now. Consider trying pet sitting.
I can’t guarantee you Ollie-like results if you bring a pet into your life. But if you do decide a furry friend is the right fit for your life, you probably won’t regret it!
For more information on how to manage depression, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.