Get a pet.
That’s what the latest common wisdom would suggest. But taking the furry creature cure is not just iffy for the depression sufferer; it could also be harmful to the pet.
I began contemplating this topic because of an op-ed in Wednesday’s New York Times by Hal Herzog titled “Fido’s No Doctor, Neither Is Whiskers. After citing his “stacks of articles” on studies that detail the health benefits of pets — for example, “that stroking an animal lowers blood pressure, that AIDS patients living with pets are less depressed and that pet owners have lower cholesterol levels, sleep more soundly, exercise more and take fewer sick days than non-pet owners” — Herzog writes:
Unfortunately, however, I also have another stack of articles, almost as high, showing that pets have either no long-term effects or have even adverse effects on physical and mental health.
Citing flawed data in several studies about the benefits of pets and presenting counter studies, Herzog concludes:
No doubt, the talk in some medical circles of prescribing puppies and kittens for the chronically ill is well intentioned. But until the research is complete, pet lovers should probably keep taking their Lipitor and Prozac.
His rather noncontroversial point? We simply don’t know enough to judge right now.
But that didn’t stop commenters from creating an uproar on the Times site. Many questioned the methodology of Herzog’s anti-pet-benefit studies (fair enough) and others provided anecdotal evidence about how pets helped them and/or their relatives and friends through various mental and physical illnesses.
I’m not a big fan of the pharmaceutical industry and feel pretty confident that diet and exercise will keep me from ever needing to take Lipitor. But I have some anecdotal evidence of my own to share: When it comes to depression, some of us need drugs, not dogs.
Unfair to the depression sufferer
I’ve been prone to depression for as long as I can remember, but didn’t seek medical help for many many years (although, like every good middle-class New Yorker, I spent the requisite number of years in psychotherapy). I had lots of excuses: I wasn’t depressed enough — however depressed that might be — to require medication. I should be be able to tough it out. I only need to exercise a little more…
People who have physical problems rarely think of avoiding medical solutions when other alternatives aren’t working for them; it’s usually the other way around, i.e., they turn to alternative medicines when the medical establishment has failed them. But even today, when mental health problems have (theoretically) been destigmatized, many people with mental health issues still feel embarrassed about seeking medication instead of making do with yoga.
It’s lucky I didn’t know about the dog-as-antidepressant theory when I adopted Frankie. As a drug substitute, he was a nonstarter.
Since, Frankie being my first dog, I was largely relying on media myths, I didn’t have a clue that dogs don’t always bond with their owners immediately. I took Frankie’s behavior — lying on the coach and cringing when I approached — personally. I was convinced that I was such a loser, I couldn’t even get a rescue dog to like me.
As you might surmise from this blog, Frankie is no longer frightened of me. Even so, he didn’t lighten my depression. When I finally sought help, Wellbutrin did.
There are many things that Frankie does that crack me up; he can be a very funny creature. He also gets me out for walks, and I’ve met many great people through him, including my online friends.
There are just as many parts of having him in my life, however, that weigh heavily on me. The insulin routine. His dislike of riding in cars. Having to walk him in the cold or heat when I could be exercising in the comfort of my health club. Not being able to travel as freely as I used to.
Does that mean I love Frankie any less? No. It just means that puppy love doesn’t conquer all, including depression.
I know some people who have been helped through their depression by dogs when drugs failed them and I am happy for them. But depression isn’t a one-size-fits-all disease.
Unfair to the dog
It’s possible that another dog — a friendly, outgoing pup who adored me instantly — might have prevented my need for drugs. But I highly doubt it. It’s far more likely that the personality of the dog wouldn’t have made a bit of difference.
It’s unfair to assume that our pets are capable of helping us with our problems, medical or emotional (trained therapy dogs excepted of course). This assumption sets the animals up to fail, to disappoint for not living up to our unreasonable expectations.
Because of my misguided ideas about instant dog bonding, I considered giving Frankie back to his rescuer in the first few days. It was pride, embarrassment and obstinacy, the knowledge that people who are far meaner and stupider than I have dogs who love them, that ultimately made me stick it out.
If I had adopted Frankie for the express purpose of cheering me up, that little dog’s butt would have been out the door after my first crying jag.
A while ago, a chapter in Jon Katz’s The New Work of Dogs really made an impression on me. It was about a woman who got a dachshund puppy to fill an emotional void in her life. She didn’t housetrain it and rarely took it outside, keeping it in diapers like a baby that would never grow up.
That’s an extreme example, but it points to a real issue. We need to respect our dogs, to work with them as individuals to be the best and happiest dogs they can be in a mutually beneficial relationship with us. We shouldn’t expect them to take the place of our doctors — or our shrinks.
Update: I was talking only about a mild form of depression in my case, but a commenter on my Facebook page pointed out that her son, who has a severe form, was incapable of taking care of his dog when he was suffering through episodes. If it wasn’t for his wife, she said, his dog wouldn’t have been walked or fed or given water for long periods. That’s a real danger to the dog I hadn’t thought of.