Pets and humans have spent several millennia together, and there’s plenty of evidence that we’ve domesticated animals long before we even began keeping a written history of the human race. Yet we tamed and bred animals for more than just hunting and livestock. Since time immemorial, we’ve considered plenty of animals as friends, partners, and companions.
Many generations have relied on their animal companions for survival, to guide them to a good bounty, help them traverse dangerous terrain, or move from one coast to another. And to this day, we keep animals not because it’s profitable, but because they make us happier and calmer. This goes especially for people with depression, who might benefit more from the presence of a pet than any other group.
More Than Just a Chore
Anyone who has ever had a pet knows that it’s not easy to be responsible for another living creature. Parents often use pets as ways to help their children better understand empathy and compassion, and the responsibilities that come with caring for someone else.
When you first get a pet, you learn quickly that they require regular grooming, daily meals, constant access to clean and fresh water, a place to sleep, and a place to go about their business – and in many cases, a human who takes care of the business they left behind in inappropriate places. Regardless of whether you’re raising a dog, a cat, or keeping a pet lizard, there are responsibilities and chores attached to keeping that being healthy and happy.
Yet the work is a reward in and of itself. As impatient and annoyed as we may be at times with our pets, the frustration rarely lasts. They simply bring us joy. And there are plenty of reasons for that. We’re going to explore how pets help make us happy by feeding into some of our basest needs and instincts, and why keeping a pet can be of great benefit to anyone struggling with depression (provided they like pets and have the time to keep one).
Why Humans Keep Pets
In a nutshell, humans continue to keep pets for their companionship. Being around a pet has shown to improve mental faculties, reduce anxiety, induce calmness, and lower the heart rate. Touching and interacting with pets causes the release of anti-stress hormones, that essentially make us feel warm and fuzzy. Often, even just looking at pictures of cute animals and pets helps our brain function better and be more accurate – we improve mentally by staring at things we consider cute.
There might be a number of different evolutionary reasons for this. Animals we originally domesticated for work – like the dog – have become companionship animals as a byproduct of thousands of years of cooperation.
Furthermore, there is an instinct in many of us to protect the young – and in a way, that determines what we find cute and not so cute. Baby animals share proportions and characteristics with tiny little humans, with oversized heads, large round eyes, and plump, small bodies.
Some animals, like dogs and cats, have grown to take advantage of our love of cute things by intentionally making ‘puppy eyes’. Science shows that, unlike their wild ancestors, modern-day domesticated dogs evolved over thousands of years to develop special muscles around the eyes to tug at our heartstrings.
It all comes down to the cold, hard facts – there’s a psychological incentive to save the young, and many cute animals happen to share similar characteristics. And dogs, more than any other pet, have evolved to take advantage of that to the fullest. Yet we keep pets around for other reasons besides their cuteness.
Pets and Distraction
An argument can be made that one of the best ways to combat depression when nothing else works – when no amount of affirmative thought or mindful meditation will help – is to simply seek a harmless distraction. Some, sadly, seek rather poor distractions with very real and very long-term consequences – from alcohol use to stress eating – but there are good distractions, such as play time with a pet, or a walk around the park.
Pets provide the perfect path for a quick timeout from reality – you can just sit down and spend time with your pet. It doesn’t have to be a walk or a long play session. Pets are always available, and will enjoy grooming, bathing, snuggling, and more. When you’re feeling really down and it doesn’t look like there’s any other way out of this terrible mood, the best thing you can do is have a sit down with your pet and spend a few minutes with them.
Pets and Petting
Physical contact is a big part of being responsible for a pet, from grooming to nuzzling. But there is a scientific reason why we enjoy petting our favorite pets. Head pats and scritches all make us happy and lead to the release of oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone’. This hormone is also one of the reasons you should hug more often, if you’re comfortable doing so.
Even if you aren’t, chances are you’ve cuddled or snuggled with someone at one point or another – the warm fuzzies you experienced afterwards come from a stress-resolving reaction naturally induced by the body in response to calming physical touch.
Pets do away with a lot of the social requirements for getting physically close to another human being, and many demand physical petting from just about anyone who isn’t deemed a threat and brings them food.
The Power of Unconditional Love
Perhaps the greatest benefit of keeping a pet while struggling with depression is the life-affirming power of unconditional love. No matter how bad you feel, no matter how down on yourself you get, you can always count on your pet to love you, appreciate you, and show up for you and show you just how much they care.
Pets often come to the rescue when we’re at our darkest hour and shower us with genuine and honest affection. They don’t care how we look, or smell, or how much we’ve been crying. They can sense the distress, lick the tears, and stay with us to help us calm down and soothe the sadness.