The Mighty Logo

6 Tips for Introducing a Therapy Pet to Someone With Depression

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Studies have shown pets are an effective way to manage depression, particularly for people who have found other methods like medication and therapy to be ineffective up to this point. For supporters of people with depression, it’s important to understand the first days and weeks after getting a therapy pet are crucial for determining whether the therapy pet will be effective. It’s up to supporters to ensure everything goes smoothly. Done right, a therapy pet can be a way to help people with depression find hope and a way forward. Done wrong, it can potentially cause a spiral. Here are some tips for having a smooth transition:

1. Let others in the house know what is about to happen and why.

It’s not unusual for people with depression to have families who live with them. Often depression is hidden from family members, but this is a time when clear communication is required. It’s a great opportunity to talk to all members of the family about why mommy or daddy is feeling sad and what you’re about to do to help it. Talk to them in a language they understand. For older kids and teenagers, it’s an opportunity to be direct about mental illness and how close to home it can be.

2. Set up clear rules with other family members.

Particularly for smaller children, a new animal in the house is an exciting time. But remember this opportunity is about how to treat people with depression. This is primarily about the person with depression, not the kids getting a present. Set clear rules about when they can play with the animal and definitely make it clear in the early transitional days, they cannot monopolize the animal. This will make bonding between the person with depression and their therapy pet easier and will also help the animal settle in.

3. Pick the right time and place to adopt the animal.

Pounds and shelters can be busy places. There can be a lot of people there at the same time, all after the same thing. This can cause some competition between potential adopters! This can be overwhelming for the person with depression and might make them feel like they are not important. Some may want to give up and go home. Call the shelter ahead of time, explain the situation and find out when the quietest day and time to get there. This will also give the person with depression time to ease into the situation and make the right choice.

4. Allow the person with depression to choose the animal.

It is important for the person with depression to feel a connection with the animal they are going to take home. Step back and let them assess for themselves. It’s OK to check on logistics — like saying no to a big dog in a small house — but apart from that, it is important not to be judgmental and question their choices. They need to feel like they have some control, because they are making an important choice for them. This is their time to take control over the management of their depression. This is exceptionally important. If they are not sure what’s right for them, staff at the shelter will have some great tips about animals that will work well.

5. Plan the first few days.

The first few days are crucial, and this is where all the planning comes into play. Allow as much time as possible for the person with depression and the animal to be alone together, in order to bond and feel comfortable with each other. This is a good time to remind smaller children in particular about the rules set earlier. Any disruption in these first few days could make the animal nervous and this in turn can make the person with depression feel as if they have been rejected, everything is hopeless, nothing will work and why bother with any type of therapy at all. This is the spiral you want to avoid. Plan activities for other people in the house and let the person with depression signal when it is time for others to get involved. Remember above all, this is their time and an opportunity to take control over their mental illness. It is not a time for others to disrupt or disturb this process.

6. Introduce other family members slowly.

Do this slowly and take your cues from the person with depression. If they feel others in the house are monopolizing the animal’s time or they are being pushed out of the way, listen or look out for behaviors signaling a depressive spiral. You will have to play this by ear and use your observation skills, but the very last thing you want is for the person with depression to withdraw when everyone else is taking over with the animal. This is another crucial point and missteps could lead the person with depression to feel like it’s not their animal anymore. It may also confirm the feelings they are not important and no one is thinking of them. Not to mention, an animal around the house could be a very visual reminder of failure to find a way to help manage their depression.

If bonding has been effective, the person with depression and the animal will be drawn to each other. The animal may have even picked up on signals you haven’t and you may see them spend time with the person with depression when they sense something is wrong. At other times, if you see the person with depression starting to drop, it’s a good time to leave them alone with the animal, reinforcing their bond. Often, animals can be more of a comfort and better listeners than humans. Low points are often the times people with depression are used to being alone or have people avoid them. A therapy pet can ensure in some way, they don’t have to be alone.

Remember above all this is for the benefit of the person with depression. In many cases, a therapy pet is a late or last resort and may feel like the last option left available. Ensuring the first few days and weeks are carried out with this in mind will not only assist an effective depression management therapy, it can also teach others about caring for people with mental illness.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: January 26, 2017
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home