Dogs & Depression: How Pets Alleviate Anxiety

This is a guest post written by Nat Smith, community member. Rover is the nation's largest network of 5-star pet sitters and dog walkers.

Me and Zoe, my best girl for the last 11 years.
She's a rescue mutt who saves me from
bouts of depression, agoraphobia, and anxiety.
Photo Credit: Halcyon's Serendipity
Depression and anxiety persist by pulling you into downward spirals. Symptoms like fatigue, social withdrawal, and the inability to concentrate actually fuel the depressive episode that brought them on. This is why, in addition to medication and therapy, treatment often includes “disruptors.” These are relatively simple habit changes that can break the cycle.

Of course, these changes aren’t easy to implement. When you’re at a low point or subsumed in panic, do you really want to stop and take a deep breath? The recovery process at its best is often described as “two steps forward, one step back.”

Mental health professionals are thrilled to uncover new forms of supplementary treatment. As current research uncovers the mysteries of canine therapy, scientists are finally beginning to understand the unique connections between pets, anxiety, and depression.

Have you ever noticed that spending time with a pup can calm you down and boost your mood? Interacting with pets stimulates neurochemicals like dopamine, decreasing stress immediately. Over time, developing a bond with a pet elevates oxytocin, a hormone produced when we feel loved and nurtured. Pets are the ideal companion, especially if you get anxious in social situations or tend to isolate yourself. They don’t judge, and they are supportive and compassionate in all kinds of situations. Researchers have even noted that people with a fear of pets can use interactions as opportunities to practice self-compassion--and other key skills associated with mental and emotional wellbeing.

Pets do need daily care, and some patients aren’t able to handle the full-time commitment of adopting a dog. However, there are many other options. You may be able to find another pet you’re able to take on (cats, for instance, tend to have simpler needs). Or you can seek out therapy animals, volunteer, or connect with other pet owners. There is plenty of communal support. More importantly, in looking after a pet, you unlock many additional benefits to your health.

Depression can make it difficult to get the exercise you need, and to spend time in nature. You may have trouble getting out of bed, let alone trekking a local trail. However, your dog’s excitement and energy will soon rub off on you. You’ll begin looking forward to your daily walks, whether you enjoy a leisurely pace or you’re inspired to jog together. Appropriate levels of exercise are associated with improved health outcomes and steadier emotional states.

Play is another key we often miss out on. Dogs help us let our guards down, embracing lighthearted fun and laughter. In his book Play it Away, Charlie Hoehn outlines how playing every day helped him recover from debilitating anxiety. While you might not want to “go have fun” when you’re feeling down, dogs can help you get out of your head and into your body.

Dogs thrive on routine, which is another essential element of recovery. When you know you have to be up at a certain time for your pup’s morning walk, and they’re ready to lay down at the same time every night, it’s much easier to stick to a regular sleeping schedule. The impulse to take care of your pet’s needs can make it easier to look after yourself. Countless patients experiencing suicidal thoughts have found a sense of purpose in caring for their animals: they hold on because they feel needed and appreciated. Many say they owe their lives to their pets.

While adopting an animal is hardly a magic cure, it is a conscientious and meaningful path you can take toward improving your health. How do you feel in the presence of pets? How does taking care of another being’s needs change your outlook? As you consider incorporating a pet into your daily life, you are opening yourself up to a powerful source of joy.