Suffering from depression?

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.

Or doga.

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.

25 thoughts on “Pets: The New Prozac?”

  1. Wow, Edie, what a fantastic, insightful post! I totally agree with your premise. People think pets will “cure” them of their depression, or of their unhappiness. While dogs make us smile and are good companions, the evidence is in that people have expectations of pets that the pets can’t usually live up to. Unfair to those pets.

    I did read the Katz book and was amazed at some of the stories–I can still remember the one you site about the woman who got the dachshund puppy.

    Also, Edie, I appreciate your opening a vein on this one. It takes courage to open up so much in a public forum. Kudos!

  2. I wrote a bit about this concept of overburdening our dogs a while back. It is definitely a concern, when it makes their lives unnatural or is just too much of an emotional strain on them. BUT, Lilly plays a big role in my health — mental or otherwise.

    So, if it’s possible, I have to say I agree and I disagree at the same time. :o)

    1. I think there’s a confusion here between mood-lifting and relieving clinical depression (which I experience in a very mild version only). Just as dogs can’t set broken bones, they can’t cure debilitating brain chemistry imbalances.

  3. I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    While I attribute my dog to helping me deal with my depression, it wasn’t so much having a furry companion to pet and lick my face, it was the fact that adopting her gave me something else to focus on. I had to think of what she needed, work on her issues, and when I finally had success, it gave me confidence I have never really had before. Owning a dog and taking classes helped me meet new people. It got me out of the house more often. My dog became a gigantic part of my life. I don’t think I’ve put any sort of burden on her to ease my troubles, at least I hope I haven’t. I don’t expect Shiva to comfort me when I want to hide from the world. But knowing she needs a walk is often what gets me up in the morning.

    However, all of this isn’t to say that I think a dog is a cure-all. There are a great number of things that have helped me. While I haven’t had to use medication, yet, I certainly don’t think a dog is a replacement for medicine or a doctor. I think more, the two might go together.

    As you say, everyone is different and the same treatments don’t work for every single person. Sometimes the last thing a person needs is a pet demanding their time. Perhaps articles that recommend this so heavily have been doing a disservice to people and their dogs. It’s unfortunate.

    Thank you for writing this. You have given me a lot to think about. I admire your courage.

  4. We are maybe even more ignorant about depression than we are about our dogs. In the general opnion depression is not recognized as an actual disease, and mistaken for a major mood swing. A dog will not help, neither will a holiday to Hawaii or a extravagant shopping trip. Other than a temporary mood bust, it will not cure anything.

    Like with any other disease, alternative treatment without medication is preferrable. And scientists investigating the effects dog have on depressions has my strong support. We just need to be careful how to interpret the results, and make sure we discuss from a mutual understanding that depression IS a disease.

    Glad you added the update about a depressed person incapable of taking care of his dogs. I have experienced the same. But I understand her. If your depression is that deep that you cannot take care of yourself, why should you be able to take care of your animals?

    Thank you for your openness Edie, it takes a lot of courage to write a story from such a personal perspective. You are just great.

  5. Hmmm, interesting topic. My immediate thought was that although I believe dogs and other animals are therapuetic and provide humans many benefits in the form of health, it seems very exploitive to have one solely for the purpose of medicine for us. Of course, there are dogs being used to help the disabled all the time. So, I feel a bit conflicted. I think when it comes to depression there are different levels and definitely, someone that is severely, clinically depressed isn’t going to be capable of taking care of a dog without medication. I agree with you Edie: they can’t be expected to take the place of something else – they have an inherent right to their own happiness as well.

  6. Just wanted to quickly thank you all for weighing in here. Frankie is sick — an ironic “physician heal thyself” commentary? — so I’m busy cleaning up and trying to decide whether to take him to the vet…

  7. Sorry to hear that Frankie is sick. Hope he soon feels a lot better.

    Edie, your post touches on something that has bothered me for a long time – human arrogance that considers everything as an object for our use, pleasure, etc. I think you outlined the situation very well, and hope it leads to more people thinking about how we relate to other species.

  8. I am someone who has suffered from extreme bouts of depression and I have been helped by the presence of my dogs during these times. Nevertheless, I would not argue for getting a dog to treat depression or any other medical condition unless the dog would be welcome and cared for properly regardless of its efficacy.

    To me it is no different than those studies that profess that faith in god and religion helps speed recovery of those patients who have it. My thought is that it’s most likely all a placebo effect. If we believe it, then it is possible for it to help. I believe the curative power to be internal and not external. In my case my dogs responded to body language, scent, and sound, which allowed me to break the cycle of my depression long enough to consider things that I do not want to give up.

    I don’t think dogs should ever be seen as a cure for anything. They are companions worthy of sharing time with us, no more, no less.

  9. This is an issue that should be written and talked about more than it is, and I thank you for being so open with your own struggle with depression.

    Brain chemistry is not something that a pet can change, although if the desire for having a dog or cat is primary and people don’t get a dog because their doctor advises it, the companionship can be very much appreciated. (Therapy dogs are trained to help with certain conditions so I don’t count them as part of this discussion.) Getting a dog as a prescription is thoughtless and as you have so well described, dogs don’t automatically bond, so it could be not only a pointless failed exercise that puts a dog in harm’s way, but it is also counter productive. I think dogs add a deeper quality to our lives, and can soothe our nerves and give us emotional satisfaction – but can’t be expected to change a chemical imbalance.

    My dad had a serious chemical imbalance after he had a major coronary when he found that most of his heart was dead and there was nothing to be done for him. He refused psychiatric help and became a person I barely recognized. Hard to watch. His dog did not help his depression, but was I am sure an occasional emotional balm in his confusion and anger.

    So you won’t see me dissing prescription drugs, though I understand the prescribing of such powerful medication, finding just the right one in the right amount, is an art and it’s not always easy to find an artful doctor. I had my own needs during this period, and a six-month course of Prozac combined with therapy did wonders for my ability to cope with the difficult family crisis that ensued, maintaining my ability to run the corporation I was then President of. Pretty useful, I’d say! And anecdotally my dog was a wonderful companion but could not possibly have helped in the way the combination of therapy and the drug did.

  10. I had depression and my pets didn’t help me through it. I viewed them more as a chore than anything else. I needed drugs, I got drugs and drugs helped me a lot! But the pet angle shouldn’t be dismissed, either. Once on an appropriate medication plan, supervised by a doctor, pets can give a patient something else to think about, care about and bring companionship like a human cannot. Dogs aren’t judgemental. They don’t care if you aren’t wearing make-up, haven’t brushed your teeth or if you are in a cranky mood, they simply want to hang out with you. For some people, that can make all the difference. next to Sean, Jersey is the joy of my life and I love having her with me 🙂

  11. I’d been circling the edge of a hole for a while when I got myself that puppy I’d always wanted. Not so much to ‘make me feel better’ but so that I could do stuff that I enjoy that you need a dog along for.
    Having a puppy was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and I’m grateful for it: I think I may have circled on that edge a lot longer otherwise. But is wasn’t a good space to be in to raise a pup, and I’ll always be sad that I wasn’t capable (emotionally) to do the best job raising her.
    When it comes to depression and animals, I think that the best option is for the animal to belong to someone else who lets that person interact as much as they can at that stage. That way the animal is well cared for, even when the sadness prevents the depressed person from being able to meet the animal’s needs. When they’re up to it, they can do the playing, walking, training, feeding and cleaning to help the owner out and feel good about it.
    So whose dog is up for adopting a depressed person? 🙂

  12. What can I say that hasn’t already been said so well by Kim, Barbara and Daisy? My sentiments exactly. I’m also amazed by your openness and willingness to share. Something more for me to think about for sure.

    Hope Frankie gets better soon. Have a good Sunday Ms Jarolim!

    P.S. Do as you wish with the email. I just thought it a bit long to post as a comment. I can be a bit…longwinded 🙂

  13. First, the Frankie report: He’s doing much better. Had an appetite, kept down dinner last night, breakfast this morning (brown rice, low salt chicken broth, a bit of egg for both), barked long and loudly at the telephone when it rang… Normalcy is returning. Thank you all for your concern.

    And thank you all for your responses to this post. Clearly I’m not the only who’s struggled with these issues and I am grateful to all for your corresponding honesty.

    I think Marra made an excellent point about animal visits: Many of the commenters of the Times article were talking about short term interaction, not having to actually care for a pet. The responsibility can be curative — in the sense of bringing the depressed person out of him/herself — or onerous, if it’s just one more thing the person can’t face doing. There’s no one formula — including in medical treatments. As Mary said, finding the right medication is an art in itself.

    But it’s clear we all agree that we shouldn’t place undue burdens on our pets. We’re supposed to be caring for them, not vice versa. And if our care and their corresponding joy and sheer doggyness (or felinity) makes us feel better — what a bonus.

  14. Great post Edie. Glad you addressed this issue and that were brave enough to share your own experience. I actually saw this piece and thought about writing about it, but thought the backlash might be a bit much. So far it appears that the reasonable are responding to your post.

    I have to agree with Kim, Kenzo, Barbara and Daisy. Actually, some really great points made by everyone. I am of the mindset that dogs should not be used as a cure-all for a lot of things, but forgoing drugs for a dog when dealing with depression sounds silly.

    On the other hand, I think with drugs, therapy, etc., having a dog shouldn’t be discounted. I am recalling a video story that Mary Haight had posted of a Iraq War vet who was taking drugs for his depression and had a therapy dog who was helping him to cope. He said if it weren’t for his therapy dog he may have decided to kill himself. I think in a circumstance like that a dog “trained” to help a person who is depressed or suffering from PTSD can be very helpful.

  15. The late, great Winston Churchill referred to his depression as his “black dog”. Sometimes mine is a Newfoundland, others a teacup poodle. My (four) actual dogs do help, partly because of the love and entertainment they offer, but also because meeting their needs does provide an extra push and pull to get me to do things I need to do for both my mental and physical health i.e. take our daily walk when my body is aching and I really want to stay in bed, covers pulled over my head. But sometimes the thought of dealing with all their energy and neediness makes me want to cry. I hate to think about what can happen to dogs in the hands of already overwhelmed depressives. There are enough bad reasons to adopt a dog (thinking that movie pug looked so cute, wanting a no-fail running partner, thinking a dog will be an ideal means to teach a kid responsibility, etc, etc), we don’t need to add the prozac pup to the list!

  16. Great post Edie. Just like everything else—from life partners, to kids, to prozac—dogs are a mixed bag when it comes to “improving” our moods and lives, whatever that means. Certainly, there are no guarantees as you and I both know. And, like you say, it can be really bad news for a dog who is “expected” to alleviate life’s woes by being all you want her or him to be. It isn’t fair to place that expectation on other people, kids, or our dogs.

    Do you remember the study that asked whether or not people who had kids were happier than those who didn’t and it turned out that those without kids were generally happier (I wish I could find the citation)? As a person who is childless by choice, this does not surprise me in the least.

    Maybe, if it’s possible, it would be interesting to compare similarly situated people (i.e., same kinds of depression, social networks or lack thereof, job satisfaction or not so much, etc.) some of whom have dogs and some who don’t. Using objective and subjective measures, ask “Who’s better off (however that’s operationally defined)?” As with so much, no, ALL research, the research is only as good as “the question” and methods used to answer it. I’m not sure that what I’m suggesting would measure up, but, still, it’s a thought.

    That said, I have no doubt that my mother’s relationship with her two Yorkies plays a huge role in keeping her going and engaged in life.

    1. I remember that study, Deborah. And, as a matter of fact, I deleted a paragraph that contemplated whether anyone — at least anyone in the 21st century who wasn’t a religious fanatic — would suggest someone have a child in order to get over depression, yet we feel comfortable doing that with dogs.

      I like the idea of a controlled study that would provide some framework to have a rational discussion of this topic.

  17. Great points. As someone who has suffered from severe depression, I know that sometimes nothing out there is a quick fix. Yes a dog can help you have more motivation to do things and get out. But if the depression is severe it can be another thing to feel depressed about: that you are letting your dog down. And when the dog dies (which he/she will, since their lifespans are so much shorter), depression can be overwhelming in response. The love of a dog is great but if the person can manage the depression with meds they will be happier for the dog too. Dogs pick up on moods of humans and can get very affected by them.

  18. Found your blog on the Saturday Blog Hop roll of blogs. Nice to meet you. Thanks for your very insightful post, and sharing your own personal story. You made your point very clearly and I agree with you. One should not expect a pet to be able to solve problems in life, but I do hope that Frankie will be a source of fortifying companionship and support to you for many years. Hoping that you and Frankie will have a blessed 2011.

  19. Edie,
    While the unconditional love a pet can offer its owner is a wonderful thing I tend to agree that getting a pet as a theraputic benefit for a human is the wrong reason to buy an animal. I would fear for the animal in a situation like this.

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