Depression affects more than 16 million American adults every year and is the leading cause of disability in the world. Symptoms of depression include sadness, irritability, sleep disturbance, loss of interest in things you used to enjoy, slow movements, poor concentration, anxiety, and thoughts of death or suicide. Depression is typically treated with some combination of antidepressant medication, usually SSRIs, and psychotherapy. These are effective for the majority of people suffering from depression, but some people don’t respond well to treatment. These people, who have treatment-resistant major depression, often respond well to more extreme measures like transcranial magnetic stimulation or electroconvulsive therapy. However, they may find some relief from their symptoms by simply adopting a pet. A new study from Portugal recruited 80 people with treatment-resistant major depressive disorder. The researchers asked all participants to consider adopting a pet and 33 participants agreed to do it. 20 participants adopted dogs and seven adopted cats. The researchers then evaluated the participants’ depressive symptoms over the course of three months, with checkups at four and eight weeks. At the end of the study, more than a third of the participants who had adopted pets improved their scores on two commonly used depression scales. Their symptoms had lessened to the point where their depression could be considered mild. Based on their study, the researchers concluded that adopting a pet can promote feelings of companionship and that it can be an “effective adjuvant” to conventional depression treatment. It’s worth noting one major caveat to this study: the participants were not randomly assigned to the pet ownership group, which might have a significant impact on the results. It’s possible, for example, that asking for volunteers to adopt pets selected for participants with more moderate symptoms, as the hassle of adopting and caring for a pet might seem too overwhelming for someone in the grip of a serious depressive episode. It may actually be irresponsible to leave an animal in the care of someone who can’t even get out of bed. This major caveat aside, the idea that pet ownership may improve depressive symptoms makes sense in many ways. Pets do provide companionship and reduce feeling of loneliness. Pets also provide a sense of structure, since they require daily exercise and feeding and they often insist on these at regular times. What’s more, caring for something else distracts you from your own problems. Depression tends to trap you in negative thought patterns and having to take care of an animal can be a way to escape those thoughts, at least temporarily.
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