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By JJ Keeler
Depression is a common illness; in the United States, one in twelve adults is affected. Often, the condition is unavoidable since it’s rooted in brain abnormalities and genetics as well as environment.
In fact, depression has no one cause and many complicated factors shoulder the blame. Those most likely to suffer from it are those who have experienced abuse, those who take certain medications, those who’ve experienced grief or loss, and those whose genetics cause lower levels of serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter that plays a vital role in mood.
People may also be prone to depression if they have a substance abuse disorder, lead a life heavy on conflict, or have underlying medical conditions. Transitions can cause it as well, even when those transitions are happy ones (such as marriage, taking a once-in-a-lifetime trip, or the birth of a new baby).
Sadness on Steroids
Depression is different from ordinary sadness. While the latter is experienced by everyone at one time or another and involves fleeting feelings of dismay, depression is steadfast and, often, unexplainable: People are sad and they don’t know why. The sadness is typically severe, with some people unable to get out of bed, get dressed, get showered, or leave their homes. That’s why, worldwide, depression is the biggest cause of disability.
Treatment for Depression
While the above seems bleak, there is an important silver lining: Depression is treatable. Usually, it’s addressed through a combination of lifestyle changes, medications that increase serotonin or dopamine, talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and support groups. But sometimes thinking outside the box (and even outside the species) helps, too. And this is where a four-legged remedy comes in.
The dog-human bond has long been studied regularly with research indicating that interspecies contact releases oxytocin, a love hormone that fosters happiness in both canines and people. Dopamine is increased as well, resulting in an overall better sense of satisfaction and bliss.
Dogs make us feel less lonely too, which is a common struggle in those experiencing depression; it’s hard to feel like you’re on your own when your poodle insists on going with you everywhere. And they make us feel needed, which is something humans innately desire. Of course, dogs make us laugh and smile as well and they inspire us with their decency and empathy.
Collaterally, there are also benefits. For example, someone with a dog is more likely to engage in exercise than someone without. This exercise benefits the pet owner physically, by decreasing blood pressure, fending off heart disease and other illness, and burning calories, but it offers emotional benefits to boot. Exercise is highly helpful to those who feel depressed due to the fact that it releases endorphins, which essentially act like natural antidepressants.
Dogs even encourage their owners to socialize, another element that reduces depressive symptoms. You may find yourself regularly visiting the dog park because of Rover or joining a hiking group because of Max. Dogs open the door to friendships, giving people a commonality to build upon.
But, perhaps, the biggest way dogs help ease depression is through our perception of self-worth. Those who are depressed don’t generally feel great about themselves, with self-doubt, shame, anger, and insecurities wreaking havoc on their emotional state. Even though depression is the result of a chemical imbalance, people tend to blame themselves (and, unfortunately, sometimes society blames them too).
Dogs offer a solution simply because they give us their unconditional love with no judgement or questioning. Everyone is perfect in the eyes of a pet. Stay around an animal who adores you long enough and you might just start to believe in all your redeeming qualities.
A Longer Life?
Dogs don’t only provide a higher quality of life but they improve quantity of life along the way: According to studies, dog owners enjoy a 24% reduced risk of death. The reasons for this are already demonstrated above: The same things that help decrease depression also help people live to older and older ages.
None of this is to say you can eat four bacon cheeseburgers a day as long as you own a dog nor is it to insinuate that those who are depressed should skip therapy for a trip to the animal shelter. But dogs act as supplemental remedies.
There’s no doubt about it: Animals have the power to heal even when modern medicine fails.
JJ Keeler lives in Colorado with a house full of pets. For the last year or so she has been a major contributor for PawzWorld.com. She owns three dogs, two cats, and a hamster she bought as a bribe to get her daughter to ride the school bus. She has a BA in English Literature from the University of Colorado and has worked as a professional writer for fifteen years. Her clothes are perpetually covered in pet hair.