Comfort for Critters

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Pets: Our Companions in Depression

Depression is a silent disease that remains the leading cause of disability in the US*. Until it came to visit my own home, I didn’t give it much thought. It affects over 16 million adults in the US, or 6.7% of the US population. I have seen first-hand the positive role pets can play in this illness. Unfortunately they are not a cure-all, but they can open lines of communication and offer a listening-ear to those who need it the most.

HABRI, the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute, backs this up, indicating that 74% of pet owners feel that having a pet has improved their mental health. I actually think that statistic is low! There are numerous ways pets provide comfort to us humans, many of which seem uniquely targeted toward people dealing with depression.

  • Comfort – Pets remind you that despite what you may be feeling, you are NOT alone.
  • Love – Pets offer unconditional love and acceptance. They see the importance of “you”, on your best day, and on your worst.  They care little for what society says, and accepts us as we are (warts and all!).
  • Routine – Along with love from a pet, comes responsibility to the pet. This aspect of living with a pet, can actually promote mental health. Having a regular schedule and daily responsibilities, can be a God-send in the depths of depression. A reason to go for a walk, or just go downstairs, is one of the blessings a pet provides. 
  • Activity – Pets can help us see past our present circumstances, and force us to get moving and get active! A renewed sense of purpose can be found in caring for a pet, even if it just means feeding them or cleaning up their messes. Taking a dog for a long walk in the sunshine can enhance one’s outlook, but truly any amount of exercise can be helpful.
  • Socialization – Babies and pets are great icebreakers! Walking a pet, or taking them to the local pet store, gives someone the opportunity to socialize, even if it’s short-term. Routine walks can open up the possibility of new friendships, as you greet neighbors each day. During a trip to the dog-park, even the most introverted person can strike up conversations with complete strangers. This social interaction can do wonders to lift depression.
  • Behavior modification I truly believe that pets bring out the best in us, encouraging us to be better people. If we’re in a bad mood, or had a long day at work, just coming home to their excited faces or urgency to sit in our lap, changes us. We stop, we slow down, we take the time to care for them, forgetting our mood for a moment (and maybe for the rest of the evening).
  • Distraction – Rumination can be a big player in depression. A pet can break that cycle, by just being themselves.  Watching a relaxed kitty curl up in the sunshine, or seeing a dog race out the back door after a squirrel (again!), can break the cycle of negative thoughts. There’s likely to be a food dish that needs filling or a paw that needs wiping, to continue the distraction!
  • Physical touch – It’s been shone repeatedly that stroking a dog or cat can lower blood pressure, heart rate and (related to depression) boost levels of serotonin and dopamine. The physical touch of a cat, curling up at your side, or a Labrador Retriever doing their famous “lean”, is a treat reserved for those of us lucky enough to share our home with a pet.

Depression is a disease that people often shy-away from, not knowing what to say. Pets clearly don’t have that issue, so they can “lean in” to your feelings and give you the empathy few humans can muster. Animals have access to many more scents and sounds than humans. They are unique in their ability to pick up indicators which tell them we are stressed. Dogs may encourage us to get out for a walk, into the soothing sounds of nature. Indoor cats and smaller “critters” offer us comfort and companionship. Pets can be divinely-inspired tools, used by our creator to reach down with comfort, into a broken world, and sometimes broken people.

* All statistics are from the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (

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