Most people have heard the commonly cited research that owning a pet is known to increase human life expectancy and have an overall positive effect on mental health. When it comes to owning a dog many of the benefits are fairly obvious—simply being responsible for another living creature often provides a sense of purpose that can help mitigate the sense of hopelessness often associated with depression.
Owning a dog makes a person more likely to get good exercise by walking their dog outdoors. Simply petting a dog has been shown to increase oxytocin and dopamine (two “feel-good” chemicals in the human brain) and decrease blood pressure. One study cited by the American Heart Association “even found that when people with borderline hypertension adopted dogs from a shelter, their blood pressure declined significantly within five months.”
Still, we do not recommend that every person suffering from depression run out and buy a puppy. Adopting a puppy is a weighty decision regardless of your current state of mental health.
It is important to make sure you can care well for your new family member, and a puppy should never be considered a primary treatment for any kind of mental health disorder. We want to explore this topic more in depth to better understand both depression and how a puppy may be an asset to someone’s mental health.
Why Getting a Puppy Could Be Tough if You're Depressed
When it comes to puppies helping those with depression, the logic is pretty simple: depression makes you sad, but puppies make you feel happy! Of course the reality of living with depression can be much more complex than simply feeling sad. Feeling sad much or all of the time is only one symptom of depression.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression sufferers also often experience fatigue, a lack of motivation or interest in things they once cared about, and even concentration problems such as difficulty remembering details. As a result, people suffering from severe clinical depression may struggle to care well for their new puppy.
While a warm kiss from a puppy with a wagging tail may initially bring a smile to someone’s face, it is important to consider the daily responsibilities associated with having a puppy and how those may also affect someone with depression. One of the main symptoms of depression is a lack of energy and motivation. Many people with depression tend to “oversleep.”
A person may feel completely exhausted and struggle to get out of bed even after a full night of sleep. Sometimes a person suffering from major depression will even talk and move more slowly.
Depression sufferers have described their symptoms as constantly “being in a fog,” “under a weight,” or feeling unable to take care of themselves because “I simply cannot move.” People with depression often struggle to complete even the most basic daily activities such as brushing their teeth or showering.
It is no secret that puppies are a big responsibility and need lots of human care to thrive. In many ways, puppies seem like a representation of the opposite of depression. They are happy, energetic, and enthralled by the world around them. They are full of life and do everything with enthusiasm from splashing in their water bowls to chasing their tails.
Everything is a fun game when you are a puppy. In some ways the polar opposite nature of a puppy as compared to someone with depression can be like a magnet to someone who is feeling down and hopeless. However, owning a puppy goes beyond just the fun, playful interactions- there are many daily responsibilities to consider. Keeping up with those tasks is how you keep your puppy happy.
As we will further explore, sometimes the daily responsibilities of taking care a pup are simply too much of a burden for someone already struggling to get through the basics of daily living and even care for themselves. In other, more mild cases of depression, having something else to dutifully care for may actually inspire motivation in other areas, too!
Puppy’s Are Also a Lot of Work, Something to Consider If You’re Depressed
When it comes to taking care of your puppy, you can expect that your sleep will be interrupted. Young puppies need frequent potty breaks, even at night. Any puppy owner can tell you that the first few weeks of owning a puppy are exhausting!
Even after they have matured enough to be able to sleep through the night, puppies are still known to be early risers. They will likely wake up with the sun and be ready to play, play, and play some more! If one of your depression symptoms is extreme fatigue and oversleeping, this may not be a good combination for you as those suffering from major depression often report that it is nearly physically impossible to get out of bed at various points in the day.
If you find yourself truly unable to get out of bed during the night or in the early morning, you may need to reconsider getting a young puppy.
Puppies Need Exercise
Secondly, people with depression often report debilitating fatigue, lack of energy, and overall thinking and moving more slowly than normal. Again, puppies stand in stark contract; they seem to be always moving and playing with an abundance of energy. Puppies nap often, too, but when they are awake they play hard! (See doodle exercise needs here.)
Meeting the play and exercise needs of a young puppy can be a challenge for someone with depression. Puppies thrive when they get consistent daily walks, outside time, etc. Expecting your puppy to sleep with you in bed all day is simply not reality for an 8 week old bundle of energy! Puppies are social, pack-oriented animals so do not thrive on independent play either. They need a combination of social interaction and exercise to be at their happiest.
If the person struggling with depression is already overwhelmed by their daily responsibilities, adding a puppy may feel like just one more thing they cannot keep up with—further increasing the feelings of guilt and failure often already felt by depressed persons.
Another point just touched on briefly above, is consistency. Puppies are learning the world around them — they have no idea what is appropriate or inappropriate behavior toward humans or in the house and are relying on you to teach and train them. Consistency and repetition is a big part of the training process.
Puppies thrive when they have a predictable schedule each day. Particularly when it comes to potty training, a consistent feeding and potty break schedule is often the key. Feeding your puppy at the same time each day while also letting them out frequently (as often as every half hour when they are awake and playing) will help set them up for potty training success. There are no “off” days when you have a puppy. They need frequent potty breaks, exercise, etc. even bright and early on Saturday morning!
Oftentimes, people with depression do not feel the same way every day. While they may always feel the weight of depression, many report that some days are a lot better (or worse) than others. If your depression prevents you from being able to function consistently, you may want to consider having someone else help you care for your puppy to avoid training setbacks on days when you are unable to stick with your basic food, exercise, and potty schedule for your little guy.
And now for the flipside.
While caring for a puppy is not an easy task regardless of one’s mental health, sometimes it can prove to be a powerful antidote for those struggling with mild depression. Another common symptom of depression is feelings of worthlessness. This is a particularly troubling symptom as it can easily lead to suicidal ideation.
The cycle of depression can often perpetuate these feelings of guilt and worthlessness as a person continues to feel worse about themselves as they are less and less able to complete daily tasks or basic goals due to other symptoms of depression like fatigue and lack of motivation. Another sign of depression is social withdrawal. Feeling sad, worthless, and exhausted leads many depressed people to seek isolation.
Oftentimes, family and friends simply do not know what to say or how to respond to a loved one with depression, further increasing the social isolation felt by the depressed person. People suffering from depression often feel very lonely and misunderstood by those around them.
Puppies Are Social, Which is Good if You’re Depressed
Puppies, especially doodles, are such social, people-oriented creatures that they are hardwired to bond with their humans no matter what. Typically a puppy from a breeder is leaving his mother and siblings for the first time at 8 weeks of age and coming into a brand new environment so is anxiously seeking an attachment with their new pack/family.
Your new puppy won’t notice how you’ve let the laundry pile up or were late to work again. Your puppy simply won’t let you be socially isolated—he will seek out your attention time and time again. Knowing that your puppy is bonded to you and looks to you for attention and guidance can begin to fight against those feelings of worthlessness.
As stated previously, the responsibility for taking care of a pup can go both ways. In some cases, the daily needs of a puppy may really be more than a person with severe depression is able to take on.
However, if you are suffering from mild or moderate depression, the daily responsibilities can act like a jump start when it comes to your motivation and energy level. If you are physically able to get out of bed at the same time each morning to take your pup out, consistently exercise your puppy, etc. then this can often snowball into other areas of your life and you may find yourself able to stay on top of other important daily habits and tasks, too.
Staying on a consistent sleep schedule with a consistent wake-time each day as well as daily exercise are two lifestyle recommendations for treating depression. These two lifestyle changes will naturally occur if you get a puppy as you will find yourself getting out of bed to let him out at the same time each day and being strongly encouraged to go on daily walks and spend more time outside to help release his puppy energy!
People with depression often report a lack of self-care. They lack the feelings of motivation and self-worth necessary to hop out of bed and shower, brush their teeth, etc. A puppy acts as a new and often more exciting source of motivation.
Having a responsibility outside of themselves can be a huge factor in regaining a sense of hope for the future. Pet owners often report a great sense of purpose and meaning in their lives thanks to the responsibility of caring for another living being.
Knowing you really should brush your teeth may not be enough reason to get out of bed, but staring down into the cute face of Fido looking up at you with expectant eyes and a wagging tail is often a much stronger motivator to get the day started for those suffering from mild to moderate depression.
As your puppy grows older, he will start to learn your habits, different tones of voice, etc. Doodles in particular have been hailed as an incredibly intuitive, sensitive breed. You will become surprised when your puppy seems to anticipate your next move.
In particular, your puppy will likely be highly attuned and intuitive when it comes to your emotions. He/she will seem to sense when you feel sad or down and often naturally approach you or sit next to you during these times. The emotional support at just the right time by your furry friend can really make all the difference. Simply knowing you are not alone when facing depression can be a huge factor in improving your mental health.
Not only do dogs meet some emotional needs that help curb loneliness, but they can also serve a practical purpose when it comes to reducing social isolation. Dogs are often a topic of conversation and a great way to spark up conversations and meet new people when you are out and about with your puppy.
In conclusion, the responsibilities of owning a puppy can prove to be overwhelming for those with severe depression who may be struggling to complete even the most basic daily tasks. Other depression sufferers may find that a new puppy is “just what the doctor ordered” and taking care of him/her may many of their depression symptoms. Sometimes it can be tough to know how a puppy will affect you in advance.
If you are unsure of which of these two aforementioned categories you would fit in, you can always try a more short-term commitment through petsitting or fostering a dog, or even just volunteering at your local animal shelter. Or if you have a good support system around you, you can ensure that your puppy has the basic, consistent care that he or she needs even when you yourself may not be able to meet these needs.
No matter where you are in regard to your mental and emotional health, you can count on a puppy to be an enthusiastic, nonjudgmental friend. However, always consult a doctor, listen to their advice and don't just rely on pets for an issue that serious.
Jenna and the JLDD Team