Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Dogs and the Depressed

As someone who has moderate atypical depression, I recently opted to stop taking medication and pursue mental health in more natural ways. It got me thinking--what effect do my dogs have on my depression?

They certainly give me reasons to smile throughout the day. Alfie's almost-human gentle eye contact always has a way of calming me and making me be in the moment. And Butter's ever-wagging tail and upside-down antics (in which she gets attention by going completely limp--except for her wagging tail--and flopping over on her back) remind me to smile and laugh.

But can they really be considered treatment?

I've heard a lot of positive messages like this one about how pets are beneficial to health, but I haven't found a lot of information on differences in effectiveness among specific types of depression.

For example, that article mentions the positive effects of pets on stressed stockbrokers, sad nursing home patients, or AIDS sufferers. What about people whose depression is not as easily attributed to specific environments or circumstances?

I did some quick searching through my university's databases of academic journals. While I didn't find any studies that directly answered my question, I did find some interesting study results.

  • A study published in Anthrozoos (the journal of the Delta Society) in December 2007 challenged the common assumption that owning a pet decreases loneliness. "There was no evidence that companion animal acquisition helped to reduce levels of loneliness, irrespective of whether participants already owned a companion animal at the time of seeking to acquire a new companion animal, or the type of companion animal that was acquired."
  • A study in the same journal in 1993 looked at the impact of dog ownership on depression, anxiety, and anger in working women and found that "Results did not support the hypotheses that among working women (1) pet owners would have lower levels of emotional distress than nonowners and (2) the greater the degree of attachment to the pet(s), the smaller the degree of emotional distress."
So, dogs may not be as effective a medicine or preventative measure as is generally thought.

However, I did find many studies relating to dogs and depression that had to do with the relationship between animals and the elderly or "empty nesters." Studies of those groups decisively found that animals had a positive mental effect.

It seems that while I may be able to rely on my dogs to lift my moods and lower my blood pressure, I can't count on them to cure my depression. Still, I count them as invaluable additions to my life, and I can certainly rely on them to try to brighten my day.


NeanderGirl said...

You should check out the book A General Theory of Love. The authors review recent work on the limbic system...It's the part of the brain that processes emotion. It's also the part that makes us mammals--all mammals have a limbic brain. Other creatures, like reptiles, do not. One of the most interesting features of the limbic brain--and this definitely relates to having dogs--is that we off load some of our emotional processing. We cannot do it all ourselves and so our roommates, co-workers, spouses and pets--all the mammals that spent 8 or so hours a day with us, get recruited to help us process emotion. Lots of emotion, no mammal companions=lots of anxiety. By the way, we send our emotions off to our furry friends via brain waves. They catch the wave, do the work and send the processed info back to--you guessed it--immune system cells in our hearts.
Don't take those journal articles you cite too seriously...comparing two pet owning women to each other doesn't tell us much. The real question is whether an individual pet owning woman would be in a different condition without her animals. Who knows how bad off she would be, even if she is comparatively OK compared to other non-mammal owning women.
Before you give up on your naturopathic approach, check out some other reading as well, on cognitive behavioral therapy. Feeling Good and Get Out of Your Words and Into Your Life are a great place to start. Good luck!

Amber said...

Thanks, Neandergirl! I will definitely have to take a look at those books. I think the journal article about working women did compare women who have pets to women who do not have pets, but part of the reason they didn't see a difference between the two groups seems to be that the women didn't spend enough time with their animals to really get the benefit. In that case, it would make sense that, as you were saying, they probably were not able to interact with their animals enough to get the benefit of their brain waves. :) Now I know why I feel so much better when I'm training my dogs!