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What is research saying?

Can owning a cat, dog, or other pet help you cope with the ups and downs of life? Pet therapy, also known as Animal-Assisted Therapy, is recognized by the National Institute of Mental Health as a type of psychotherapy for treating depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. Being around pets appears to feed the soul, promoting a sense of emotional connectedness and overall well-being.

Example: How Pets Help

Peter Ashenden, president and CEO of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, has a 17-pound Shih Tzu named Bella who never leaves his side. Ashenden, who has bipolar disorder, credits 4-year-old Bella with keeping his mood level and steady, even on his worst days.

"Bella goes everywhere with me, whether it be a gala dinner or board meetings," Ashenden says. "She is my companion. By having Bella with me, it brings a piece of home with me wherever I go."

Ashenden benefits from Bella's presence in several different ways:

   * She forces him to remain active even when his depression flares up. Bella needs to be walked two to three times a day. "No matter what's going on with me, that's something that requires I get out of the house — these activities help me remain engaged."

   * She keeps him from feeling socially withdrawn. People approach Ashenden because they want to meet Bella, he says. "Sometimes going out of your comfort zone can be difficult — Bella helps break that ice for me."

   * She provides him with constant companionship. "I'm never alone," he explains. "One of the symptoms of depression is that people isolate and tend to withdraw."

Direct Contact

Ashenden's experience with Bella isn't unique. Researchers have found that interaction with pets — even if they don't belong to you — can:

One example showed that exposure to an aviary filled with songbirds lowered depression in elderly men at a veterans' hospital; another example noted the improved moods of depressed college students after they interacted with a therapy dog.

However, it seems that direct contact with an animal is necessary to achieve psychological benefit. People who were shown photographs of cuddly pets as part of a study did not experience the same decrease in symptoms of  mood problems as people who actually were able to play with and touch animals.

Finding Therapy Animals

Groups like the American Humane Association and the Delta Society offer Animal-Assisted Therapy programs for people with depression and other mood disorders. You may also be able to find a local group in your area that offers pet therapy. (People living in the Denver area, for instance, benefit from a pet therapy organization called Denver Pet Partners.)

When looking for pet therapy groups, be sure to find out how much training their therapy pets and animal handlers undergo. The American Humane Association emphasizes that the good that can come from pet therapy can be undone if the pets are not gentle and well-trained.

And of course, there's always the option of adopting a pet from your local animal shelter. If you feel capable of giving a dog or cat a good home, the relationship could benefit you as well.

Adapted from an article by Dennis Thompson, Jr.; Medically reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH,

Animal Therapy