According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the company of a pet can help people who are living with depression. Maybe it’s because cats, dogs and other companion creatures offer unlimited affection and nonjudgmental companionship. They lift our spirits and lower our stress. They counteract symptoms such as isolation, rumination and lethargy.
“All people report feeling less lonely in the presence of animals – even birds,” says Alan Beck, director of the Center for Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
“Animals are good for everyone, but particularly for anxious and depressed people. For one thing, pets keep us anchored in the present and distract us from the negative or anxious thoughts, says Beck. “If you can focus on the present in positive ways, it makes you less anxious,” he says. “Much anxiety and depression comes from the thoughts of the past or worries about the future.”
Caring for the needs of another creature in the present bolsters our self-esteem and provides purpose and a sense of being needed.
Jennifer P. Wisdom, PhD, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center and a research scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and her colleagues surveyed 177 individuals with mental illness to determine what factors affect the recovery process.
For pet owners, the researchers concluded, companion animals not only boost self-esteem, but also provide empathy, initiate social encounters and serve as substitute or additional family members.
Scientists are still trying to figure out why animals affect us so powerfully.
It may be that communing with a pet exercises our emotional muscles, so to speak. Many pet owners speak of the unconditional love their pets shower so generously upon them – the cat purring on their lap, the dog that enthusiastically bounds to meet them at the door even if they’re returning from a five-minute errand. Nothing can compete with these natural cheerleaders. If everything else seems to be against us, their presence affirms that they are for us.