Many people report positive experiences from owning a pet. Animals have long been used in therapy – for example, training guide dogs to help people with visual impairments. Animal-assisted therapy generally refers to targeted interventions, such as swimming with dolphins or having dogs visiting care facilities. Animal therapy may also refer to the general companionship of living with an animal.
Having a close relationship with another person is thought to help depression. A relationship with a pet may have a similar effect.
There are a few studies which have looked at animal assisted therapy for the treatment of depression. In one study, people with mild to moderate depression participated in a therapy where they swam, played with and cared for dolphins over a two week period. In another study, people with diagnosed depression participated in a therapy where they cared for cows on a dairy farm. Birds have also been used in therapy programs for older adults in rehabilitation units. In all these studies, people who took part in the animal assisted therapy had a greater reduction in depression symptoms compared to people who did not have the therapy. However, there could be many reasons for this finding. For example, it is not clear if the contact with animals improved mood, or if people felt better because they participated in a fun, novel experience. The long term outcomes were also not assessed.
There has been no scientific studies which have looked at the effect of household pets on depression.
Contact with animals may not be suitable for people who have a fear of animals or are allergic to animal hair. Animal-assisted therapy is not widely available and may be expensive. Owning a pet is also a long-term commitment. Although pets can give affection and companionship, they require the same level of care in return.
In Australia, animal therapy providers can be found in the Natural Therapy directory. Pets can be adopted from the RSPCA and other rescue organisations, pet breeders, and pet shops.
Interacting with pets and animals can be a fun and positive experience, however there is not enough good evidence at this stage to recommend animal assisted therapy as a treatment for depression.
Last reviewed and updated: 1 December 2016