Depression and pets

Pets are an important source of company, empathy, joy, humor and love for most of the young adults we interviewed. As Sierra Rose summarized, “animals are perfect. They love you no matter what. Like straight up everyone should own at least one animal.” Many people also spoke about the importance of being needed by their pets – “to have something to take care of,” as Colin put it, “instead of needing people to take care of me.” For some people, however, the responsibility of caring for a pet was too much during their current phase of life, and the anticipated loss of creatures with short life-spans could also be a source of sadness.

Being loved and accepted

Many people we spoke to said their pets’ unconditional love and acceptance was “a huge factor in life” – a sure way, as Devin put it, to “bring up my spirit… and put a smile on my face.” Several people named cats or dogs as their “closest friends” growing up. Kate described her cat, who has moved with her a number of times, as “one of the consistent things in my life,” adding “… even though I don’t have anybody to listen or hug, I have this one.” Sara said her cat would sleep with her, and she would confide in him because he couldn’t and “… wouldn’t tell anything to anyone.”

Some people said that when they are depressed, the comfort of being with their pets can make it even harder to get out of bed, out of the house, or into the company of other people. Others said their pets motivated them to get outside, by making that experience more joyful.

Teri loved taking her dog places in the car, even when her depression was at its worst.
Interview Transcript

…at that time he was pretty young and he wasn’t a puppy-puppy but he was still a puppy and so having not only that purpose but to have a companion to have someone that well, it’s a dog and they’re always excited to see you and I was always exited to be around him. It was great in the car, I loved taking him places so even if you know before when I was in the worst of it, I didn’t want to go anywhere, do anything, when he was there, I wanted to get him out, you know, like, go to the dog park and go on walks and just go on a car ride and stick your head out the window, you know, so that was extremely helpful for me.

DEP Teri
Profile Info
Age at interview: 24
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: N/A

Background: Teri is a master’s student in family counseling who lives with her wife and a dog. She has had counseling, but not medication. She is Caucasian.

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Julia says it's validating that her pets love her unconditionally. At the same time, her desire to be with them sometimes exacerbates her tendency to isolate herself from other people.
Interview Transcript

I love my pets. I have a dog, Toby, a cat, Char, and then I have a turtle.

Uh-huh.

Slowsky, and they’re like my best friends [laughs]. In like a really unhealthy way. Yeah, I can’t imagine not having pets, I’ve always had pets and it’s just really nice to come home and have someone unconditionally love you. And even if I like go down to get the mail and come back my dog is so excited to see me, it’s like I’ve been gone for a week (both laugh). You know, it’s just a really nice validating feeling you know that there’s someone that cares 100% who looks at you like you’re the greatest thing ever and that’s a really good feeling. And it’s also, I get such enjoyment just like staying at home and petting my animals and I could like watch my cat watch birds for like an hour.

And be totally fine doing that. Sometimes I do feel like it’s a little isolating because there are times where I’ll make plans with someone and in the moment I’m just like yeah, I totally want to get coffee and then it will be like the day that we’re supposed to go and I’ll be like I kind of just want to stay home and play with my cat [both laugh].

DEP Julia
Profile Info
Age at interview: 22
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 16

Background: Julia is a family therapist. She is single and lives alone in an apartment with a cat and a dog. She takes medication and sees a therapist. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Julia's profile page

The capacity of dogs and cats to empathize, and to accept unconditionally, was considered a wondrous gift by most people. As Leanna summarized, “they can tell how you’re feeling and they want to help and it’s really nice.” A number of people described how their cat or dog comes to sit on their lap, lick their leg, or be nearby when they are depressed, always doing “something to get you out of that mood because they can sense it.” Casey said when he is depressed he doesn’t want to be touched, even by a dog or cat.

Numerous people said the non-judgmental presence of animals offers relief from the pain of depression-related low self-esteem and self-negation. As Sara put it, animals “don’t talk back and they don’t judge me.” James said a pet “ain’t going to judge you… [and] will help you with your depression.”

Maya finds it healing to be with animals.
Interview Transcript

But growing up, honestly, my pets were probably my closest friends to be very honest, my cats. Yeah and so pets have been a huge part of my life and I’m really sad that my cat’s gone. Yeah but yeah when it comes to like the support systems, I think that you know a cat’s always. For as finicky as they are, they are very forgiving, like regardless of what you’re feeling. Cats and dogs, obviously less so fish, and lizards, [laughter] but they can be present with you and that’s what I think can be the most healing thing, just being with someone or something, depending on how you see your pets…

A fur person.

Yeah fur people, fur kids you know who can be with you regardless of what you’re feeling and allow you to hold that space and not have to fix you, but they can just be there with you.

DEP Maya
Profile Info
Age at interview: 27
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Maya manages an adolescent program in a community center and lives with her boyfriend. She is Chinese American.

Click here to view Maya's profile page

Being needed

Feeling capable of caring for another creature, and responsible for its well-being, was described as intensely meaningful by a number of people. Colin recounted the benefits to him of taking care of a baby turtle, realizing that “its life [is] in my hands, really” and having the satisfaction of feeding it and watching it grow. Kate said her pet is “a responsibility,” but “nobody else would take care of him the way I do.” Several people described their pets as “pretty much the only thing holding me there” in their darkest moments, including when contemplating suicide.

Teddy wants to keep helping his dog, who has arthritis. Honoring that commitment is one of the things that keeps him going.
Interview Transcript

I knew that I was either destined to not be alive or be alone for, for the rest of my life and that’s when my little dog came up to me into my room, because I left my door open and he jumped onto my bed and fell asleep. And I guess you could say that was the second push to try and get more help, because I didn’t want to leave him all alone because none of the rest of my family, except for my sister, acknowledges him. So I kind of made a vow to help my dog, because he’s not going through the best of times either, with his arthritis and everything. So I was like I’m going to keep living to, until he’s lived a full life and I’m going to remain living to honor him and how he stopped me because if it wasn’t for my dog walking in, I probably would have been gone already.

I’ve had him ever since I was 9. And I’ve always tried to protect him and kept him away from a lot of things and did my best to make sure he was loved and cared for. So even to this day sometimes I’ll take him upstairs and he’ll sleep with me for the night and I will give him a treat in the morning and just seeing him really happy kind of makes me forget about all the stuff that has happened to me and what’s going on in life right now and kind of just, mainly focuses on him.

DEP Teddy
Profile Info
Age at interview: 18
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 16

Background: Teddy is a high school graduate who lives at home with his parents, siblings, and dog. His goal is either to focus on music or to become a vet technician and work with animals. He is African American and Latino.

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Sierra Rose says her cats are the main reason she went to the hospital for help when she felt suicidal.
Interview Transcript

It wasn’t because I had a boyfriend, it wasn’t because I felt like I had a bunch to live for, it was because I had two cats at home that had been with me since they were kittens that would have no idea why I wasn’t coming home anymore. They would have, I didn’t know if my boyfriend would continue to take care of them, he’s not a cat person. He only puts up with them because they help me. I, they are my reason to live most of the time and sometimes they are the only things that I can feel love for. I can just sit there and you know be sitting here watching TV and one will be on the back of the couch and one on the cat tree and one on the window seal and I can see them all in this line of vision, I can just look at them and they’re, It fills me with love and hope and you know, I am their entire world, if that doesn’t make you want to live for something, I don’t know what will. Being, you know your pet is such a tiny part of your world. You are literally everything to them. You are food, you are shelter, you are water, you are safety, you are love, you are their God, and they love you for it and it shows. When I’m upset, if I’m crying, at least one if not all three of them come and curl up with me and start purring.

DEP Sierra Rose
Profile Info
Age at interview: 18
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 11

Background: Sierra Rose lives in an apartment with her boyfriend, another roommate, and three beloved cats. She spent a week in the hospital shortly before her interview, and was continuing with out-patient care but struggling to pay for some of it. She is Italian and Jewish.

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For other people we interviewed, the benefits of having a pet needed to be weighed carefully against the responsibility. Jeremy said he really wants a dog, but “it’s a little much like to take care of, it’s like a child…,” so he is not yet ready to make that commitment. Jackson is delighted that other people in the house where he lives have a cat, so he can enjoy it without having more personal responsibility than makes sense in his current situation.

Whitney finds great joy and comfort in pets, but changing living arrangements sometimes forced her to give them up.
Interview Transcript

I’ve had pets. I made sure I had pets (laughs). That I actually, um, back in 2010 I got real sick and, I went and bought two little kittens from the Humane Society and I had them until, up to I wanna say last year. I had to give them to my dad’s girlfriend because I couldn’t have them in the house since we were getting ready to sell it and my dad was getting all prepared you know and, uh, I wasn’t able to afford it, I needed my own place. But I can go see them whenever I want but the one cat played a huge factor in my life, he’s the one that kept me going. Because he had such a personality to him and I seem to find animals that have a lot of personality. I got my daughter a rabbit for her birthday and my dad has a cat and the bunny and the cat love to lay next to each other on the couch and it was, it’s like they’re best friends. They chase each other around the house (laughs). I mean it’s just, having the animals there gives me time to not focus on myself and just get a break.

And kind of, I guess it’s like a stress reliever too for me, like just holding them and stuff like that cause it’s just like, it’s a comfort having them and sometimes you need that. Especially if you feel alone.

DEP Whitney
Profile Info
Age at interview: 29
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 9

Background: Whitney is unemployed and is staying with her father who has custody of her 9-year old daughter. She is White.

Click here to view Whitney's profile page
Jacob got a dog to cope with his depression, but found it was too hard to care for him as needed. The cat he got later requires less work and is a better match.
Interview Transcript

a Norwegian Elkhound. That has a sad ending to the story, because I, I got him to help cope with my depression, because I was living on my own and that was when I was done with school and living in an apartment on my own. No relationship at the time. And so I got him for that reason, and found out that I just wasn’t in a very good place to take care of him. I was very busy at work. The depression, instead of him helping my depression, my depression made him less happy and satisfied, because I wasn’t able to attend to him the way that I needed to. So I ended up finding a new home for him. But now I do have a cat now. Much lower maintenance, pretty self-sufficient, and helps, because my partner and I, I are living together with the cat so we can tag team it. So it’s not just one responsibility all on me and it absolutely helps, because it was for a span for about three weeks when we were moving around and so the cat stayed with friends, and I missed him a lot. And I could tell, because I gotten the habit of coming home from work and him being right there and you’d pick him up and you love on him for a little bit. And it absolutely helps.

DEP Jacob
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 18

Background: Jacob is a software engineer at a large company. He lives with his girlfriend and a cat. He is White.

Click here to view Jacob's profile page

Having fun

Many people we spoke to stressed the importance of fun, laughter, humor and joy as effective ways to counteract the weight of depression – and for some, animals are a direct route to having these positive feelings. As Ryan put it, pets “always just bring joy” and “make you feel happy when you didn’t think you could.” Colin said every day he can’t wait to go visit a cat he knows. Shayne noted that her cats are “super funny… like my little babies that are fuzzy and walk on four legs.”

Leanna says her rabbit is 'nice and chubby, so it's a good squeeze.'
Interview Transcript

I like to like, my rabbit right there. I like to grab her and hug her. She’s nice and chubby, so it’s a good squeeze. Just, I don’t know, it just makes me feel happy. It’s just, animals just have this way of like, you know that they can tell how you’re feeling and they want to help and it’s really nice. Like when I’m sad, my cat, she knows. She’ll come and rrrr and purr.

DEP Leanna
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Leanna lives with her husband and many pets in an apartment complex in a suburb outside a large town in a rural area. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Leanna's profile page

Sierra Rose notes that pets are not only fun in their own right, but also make it more comfortable to socialize when she is depressed because “if there’s ever a lull in conversation then we can be like ‘Oh, look at what my cats are doing, they’re being adorable.”

Being healed

Several people described their pets as a therapeutic necessity for coping with their mental health issues and making it through each day. Research links* pets to a variety of health and mental health benefits, though studies of pets and young adults with depression remain scarce. Two people said they had successfully petitioned their landlords to certify their dogs, cats or rabbits as “companion animals” approved to live with them even in housing that generally does not permit pets; federal law gives “emotional support” animals this special status*1 if the need is verified by a clinician. A third person talked about how it remains too difficult to get pets approved as therapy animals.Many people said coming to terms with both their darker and lighter moods was an essential step in healing. Shayne’s cats offered her one way to do this.

Shayne sees versions of herself with and without depression in her cats' personalities.
Interview Transcript

It’s funny because they represent me so much in a certain way. Walter always wants to be pet, petted and he always wants you to give him all the pets and he’s super outgoing and super loving. He’ll just sit on someone’s lap, like brand new person, never been in the house before. He’ll just sit on their lap and get hair everywhere all over them, you know. He loves it. Richard is more standoffish. He doesn’t like being picked up. He’s not the friendliest cat. He’ll let you pet him if he feels like it. So it’s funny because I think they’re both like parts of me. They both, they both reflect parts of my personality which is really cute, I feel. Because Walter always wants attention and I’m super outgoing and I always want to make new friends, and then parts of me are like, when I get depressed or when I’m like feeling anxious, I’m like I don’t want to talk to anyone right now, like. I just want to do my own thing, you know, put my headphones in and zone out, you know, like. It’s like cats.

DEP Shayne
Profile Info
Age at interview: 27
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 13

Background: Shayne lives in a house with two roommates and three cats. She works in research, exercises regularly, and does art. She is White.

Click here to view Shayne's profile page

See also ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope’, ‘Depression and strategies for everyday life’, ‘Depression and healing’, and ‘How depression feels’.

References

*“Can Pets Help Keep You Healthy? Exploring the Human-Animal Bond”. NIH: News in Health, February 2009, Web. 7 February 2016.

*1Chandler, Cynthia. “Confirming The Benefits of Emotional Support Animals”. Counseling Today Online, 20 April 2015, Web. 7 February 2016.

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