Down But Not Out

Pets Can Lift Spirits of Those Fighting Depression

Eric Niemeyer, PsyD, is one of three psychologists at the Center for Primary Care.

Feeling blue, lonely, tense? Maybe what you need to lift your mood can be found at the end of a leash, rather than in a bottle of pills.

There are many ways that pets can lift your mood, reduce tension and give you a renewed sense of direction, and that may be just what the doctor ordered for people suffering from mild depression, according to Eric Niemeyer, PsyD, psychologist at the Center for Primary Care in Vacaville.

“Pets are so non-judgmental and accepting of us. The moment you walk in the door, they don’t care if you had a bad day at the office; they’re just happy to see you. It seems as if pets see us the way we want to be seen, and treat us the way we want to be treated.”

For people suffering from mild depression, that non-judgmental greeting may be just enough of a boost to get them feeling better in other ways. “I’m honest when I tell my patients that battling depression will mean you’re going to have to do things you don’t feel like doing,” Dr. Niemeyer says. “If you have low energy, you’re going to have to find a way to get some physical activity, because it will help you to feel better. If the dog needs to be walked, that might be an incentive to get off the couch or out of bed.”

That’s important, because depression can be isolating, making people pull back from those they care about, and activities they enjoy. But having a pet means you’re not always alone. “It’s funny how it works; you have to walk the dog, so maybe you take the dog to a dog park, and now you’re out, getting fresh air, a change of perspective, and perhaps some socialization. It helps you feel better.”

Studies have shown that people feel better when they have physical contact with others, and that petting a dog or cat can lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, and even boost those feel-good chemicals in the brain.

“But, if you find that even a pet can’t improve your mood, and you’re having a hard time engaging in the activities of daily living,” Dr. Niemeyer says, “it may be an indication that you should seek the assistance of a professional.”

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