When discussed as a treatment for depression, 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 pet. Some people also have psychiatric assistance dogs, which is a dog who has been trained to assist their owner manage their mental health.
There are many ways that animals might help to improve mood. Interacting with animals can be a fun, rewarding experience, or a kind of pleasant activity. Having a pet animal can provide companionship and a sense of responsibility which might be helpful for some people with depression.
Psychiatric assistance dogs can be trained to perform certain behaviours to help their owners manage their mood. For example, an assistance dog might nudge or lick their owner to keep them focused on the present, or stand alongside them to create a barrier between their owner and other people. These types of behaviours can be especially helpful for people with anxiety, which commonly co-occurs with depression.
TThere are a few studies which have looked at animal assisted therapy for the treatment of depression. The types of animal assisted therapy looked at in these studies include swimming with dolphins, working with cows on a dairy farm, looking after birds, and interacting with dogs. In most of 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 simply because they participated in a fun, novel experience. The long-term outcomes were also not assessed.
Most of the research on animal assisted therapy for depression has been conducted with older adults, so it is unclear if this type of therapy is helpful for younger adults and adolescents.
There have been no scientific studies which have looked at the effect of household pets or psychiatric assistance dogs as a treatment for 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 a long-term commitment. Although pets can give affection and companionship, they require the same level of care in return, and anyone thinking about getting a pet should consider this decision seriously. The RSPCA has published helpful guides for people who are considering getting a dog or a cat.
In Australia, animal therapy providers can be found in the Natural Therapy directory.
Pets can be adopted from the RSPCA and other rescue organisations. If you are looking to purchase an animal from a breeder, make sure to find a reputable breeder who ensures the welfare of their animals.
If you are interested in getting a psychiatric assistance dog, mindDog Australia can help you find, train and certify your dog to become a recognised assistance animal.
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 November 2019