Treating Postpartum Depression with Pet Therapy

Author Kelly and her dog HeidiI’m reading more and more about how pets – particularly dogs – are used in therapy for people with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental disorders. But after a simple web search, I found very little on treating postpartum depression with pet therapy.

Our dog, a German shepherd named Heidi, has been and remains instrumental in maintaining mental health and wellness as I still recover from postpartum depression and anxiety. It makes me think doctors, researchers, mental health practitioners and nonprofits should investigate more the idea of treating postpartum depression with pet therapy.

At the height of my depression, even getting out of bed was extremely difficult. It is difficult to explain to those who have never truly suffered from clinical depression, but those of you who have been there will know exactly what I’m saying.

Sadly, a characteristic of postpartum depression is lacking an attachment with your baby. This was true for me. While I always did what was necessary to take care of my son and loved him as my child, it took awhile to form an attachment bond with him because of the PPD. Thus, his crying wasn’t always the best motivator for getting me moving.

However, a dog can – and often does – actively “encourage” its owner to get up and get moving. Dogs can’t let themselves outside nor can they open the food bin to feed themselves. But they will let you know when they need to pee or eat! Heidi urged me on gently when she needed things, and at a very basic level she got me up and around even when it felt a thousand horses couldn’t drag me out of bed.

Dogs don’t take things personally either. Heidi never cared when I didn’t shower, if I cried or if I had a good day. Dogs love unconditionally, and Heidi loved me unconditionally. She never tired of my crying or bad moods. In fact, Heidi is so attuned to “her people” that she notices sadness; when one of us is upset, she is right there nuzzling up to us to get us to smile.

Further, research has shown that simply owning a dog can lower one’s blood pressure; petting an animal’s fur can alleviate anxiety and reduce stress. Researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel gauged study participants’ responses to stressful situations (they were told they may have to hold a tarantula in the room!). Some participants got to pet live animals (rabbits or turtles), while others got to pet stuffed animals or nothing. The individuals petting live animals reported reduced anxiety about their stressful situation. Interestingly, it did not matter whether each individual was a self-described animal lover; even non-animal lovers received anxiety-reducing benefits from petting live animals.

In short, while there are many treatments available for women managing postpartum depression and other postpartum mental health issues, I think an area that deserves more attention is treating postpartum depression with pet therapy!

Do you have a dog or another pet? Has he or she helped you cope with stress, depression or other mental illness?