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Nature’s Antidepressant: The Dog

Dogs aren’t just our best friends, they are four-legged antidepressants.

Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.
Source: Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.

Pet owners know that when they’re feeling down, there’s no better mood elevator than the soulful eyes, wagging tail and warm fur of a dog. Studies confirm it: Dogs aren’t just our best friends, they are four-legged antidepressants. Consider these findings from an analysis of close to 70 animal studies:

  • In nursing homes with a live-in or visiting dog, depression decreased significantly among the elderly residents.
  • Even after just one therapy session with a dog, children with psychiatric disorders showed better mood balance.
  • In adult couples struggling with the empty nest, pets were found to help stabilize the marriage.
  • Long-term care patients allowed to interact with dogs reported less loneliness. And the more one-on-one time the person had with the animal, the greater the effect.
  • Dogs act as “social catalysts.” Their presence in a group was found to increase smiles, conversation and spirit-lifting interactions.

So just how do dogs work their magic on our mood? Researchers believe a big part of the answer is found in the chemical oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone.” It’s most commonly associated with childbirth and breastfeeding, and its release is believed to play a crucial role in facilitating the formation of emotional bonds. Turns out it’s also released when dogs and people interact. A recent study found that when dogs and human gaze into each other’s eyes, oxytocin levels rise in both.

Dogs also affect our moods less directly, by being the catalyst of situations that help keep low spirits at bay, whether they spring from a diagnosed mood disorder or just a tough day at the office. Among a dog’s gifts:

  1. Dogs challenge our negative talk. When we are depressed, our inner critic can work overtime, letting us know in no uncertain terms just how insignificant and hopeless we are. Research shows that the oxytocin released as the result of an animal’s presence can help us overcome negative perceptions of ourselves. And, of course, dogs set the standard for unconditional love. With just a look, they eloquently convey the message we need most to absorb: “You are worthy of love.”
  2. Dogs keep us active. There’s no sleeping in till noon or vegging on the couch all day when a dog is in the picture. Because they need feeding and attention and ways to burn off that canine energy, dogs keep us moving. This activity adds up to better physical fitness, which research acknowledges as one of the most powerful antidotes to depression.
  3. Dogs connect us to the present. When we’re blue, we often find ourselves dwelling on past problems or anxiously anticipating the future. A dog, by contrast, is all about now. By his simple presence and inevitable demands on our attention, we are pulled back to the present moment and forced into mindfulness. As a result, we are better able to stop the downward spiral of our negative rumination.
  4. Dogs keep us connected to the world. When depression hits, the temptation can be to get under the covers and stay there. With a dog in the picture, that’s simply not an option. Dogs not only get us out of the house, their power as a social catalyst facilitates our interaction with the world (as anyone who has walked their dog and been stopped multiple times to chat knows). Research confirms that our pets not only make us more open to and better at social interaction, they stimulate our desire for more, all of which is good news for mood.
  5. Dogs remind us of the power of play. Dogs know how to have a good time and they want us to have it with them. Their contagious enthusiasm reminds us of the power of play, which research confirms can lift mood, help ballast our emotions and give us a healthy outlet for stress. As Brian Sutton-Smith, considered the foremost scholar on play, once noted, “The opposite of play is not work, it is depression.”

Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine, and writes an addiction blog. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees mental health treatment programs at Lucida Treatment Center in Florida and Malibu Vista in California.

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