Ask The Vets: Pets & Mental Health

By Dr. Kim Anderka & Dr. Christina Douthwaite

QUESTION:

My daughter struggles with depression and we are considering getting a dog to have as a support animal.  What are the benefits of having a pet in the house and what should we be looking for?

ANSWER:

Congratulations on your choice.  Pets have many beneficial qualities to help with our general health and wellbeing.  The Canadian Mental Health Association reports many positive effects of pet ownership.  Companionship with pets is known to reduce blood pressure, lower heart rate, reduce levels of stress hormones and cholesterol in blood , and can increase survival time after heart attacks.  Pets also contribute towards mental health in many ways.  As we spend time petting our cat or dog, levels of oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine rise in our bodies; these natural hormones and neurotransmitters lower feelings of anxiety and other negative emotions.  The exercise and fresh air we get when we walk a dog give us a dose of nature and vitamin D which both help boost our mood.  Keeping active with your pets promotes fitness, self-esteem and strength, which makes us less susceptible to mental health issues.  Pets encourage us to stay in the moment and encourage mindfulness; as we focus on them it is easier to forget the other stresses of our day-to-day lives.  Pets offer us unconditional love regardless of what kind of day we are having, our appearance or our social status.  We can tell them our secrets with no concern of judgment or passing them on.  Having pets in the house enlarges our social circle, decreases feelings of loneliness and provides structure to our day as well as a sense of worth and responsibility.  Discussing our pets is a great way to open conversations and develop friendships and connections to people, which in turn reduces social isolation.

Many resources are available for matching service dogs to individuals.     National Service Dogs (www.nsd.on.ca) trains and places certified service dogs with individuals with various disabilities.  St John Ambulance (www.sja.ca) coordinates therapy dog sessions with a wide range of community settings, such as schools, senior residences and community centers.  A companion animal may need no special training other than basic obedience.  Choice of a companion dog is often based on temperament and the size and breed that is best suited to your household.  Golden and Labrador Retrievers are often a popular choice due to their ability to train and calm demeanor.   If a smaller dog is more suitable to your house and lifestyle, small breed dogs such as the Bichon Frise, Shih tzu and Poodle would also be a good choice.  Invest in a good trainer and work with obedience training sessions that involve your entire family.  Good socialization, positive reinforcement and rewarding calm behavior will pay off in the long term to help your new dog integrate into your family.  Best wishes for you and your family in your new adventure.

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