Research shows that animals can help ease loneliness, stress, and even the symptoms of depression and anxiety. However, high-maintenance pets could require more effort than you’re able to devote. Likewise, big animals may not work for every apartment-dwelling person. This can leave you wondering which small pets are best for helping your depression.
Gerbils, rats, dwarf rabbits, and some lizards are good small pets for people with depression. These animals offer the same emotional connection and comfort as dogs or cats, but require less active attention. Most rodent pets will provide you with intelligence and fun interactions. Rabbits and lizards, on the other hand, are relatively low-maintenance while still being emotionally present.
Animals help ease depression symptoms by providing emotional comfort and unconditional love. Additionally, they give their owners physical contact through petting, nuzzling, and cuddling. They may even serve as motivation to get out of bed, figuratively and literally, since pets need your care and attention. Of course, it’s important to choose a pet based on your routine, personality, and the severity of your depression.
Do Pets Help Mental Health?
Many pet owners say that having a companion animal lowers their stress levels. This helps manage the symptoms of mental health problems, including depression.
Surprisingly, however, this can be a contentious subject for academics, psychiatrists, and psychologists. Harold Herzog, for example, argued that the ‘pet effect’ is simply an unproven hypothesis. This was shown in his research for Current Directions in Psychological Science.
In contrast, there are many studies that show that animal companionship is beneficial to the mental health of people of all ages. A study in Professional School Counseling, for example, found that small animals were excellent companions. This was specifically for young children experiencing emotional upheaval or trauma. Researcher Barbara Flom found that young children were more likely to open up to counselors with animal support.
Likewise, Pauline Hall offered pet-positive research in the British Journal of Nursing. It showed that interaction with companion animals is beneficial to long-stay psychiatric patients.
These individuals, of course, do not have the opportunity to personally own pets, so the contact was limited. Nonetheless, Hall found that interaction even with small animals helped those having severe depressive episodes. Afterward, they were able to have more positive social interactions.
Psychology of Having A Pet
Of course, long-stay psychiatric patients are not representative of most people who have depression. Helen Brooks published research in BMC Psychiatry which showed that pets, small or large, are very good for people with depression.
In fact, she found the emotional support and connection offered by a pet was the most important element. This was especially true for those who have difficult relationships with those closest to them. Pets in the home can help people with depression:
- Ward off loneliness
- Enjoy emotional support
- Manage their own symptoms more effectively
As a result, Brooks argued that pets should be seen as a major part of a person’s support network. This may seem strange, but evidence suggests that pet ownership offers the following benefits:
- Lower stress levels
- Reduced symptoms of anxiety compared to non-pet owners
- Boosted self-esteem
- Social connection
- A strong routine
- Companionship and affection
- Reduced depressive symptoms (compared to non-pet owners)
Pets offer unconditional love. This affection, untroubled by day to day concerns, is comforting for many people. Owners can also speak freely to a pet without fear of judgment. This is paired with the sensation that someone – or something – is still listening. That can be therapeutic.
Having a pet ensures that you have something outside yourself to think about. You are responsible for:
- Feeding it
- Giving it water
- Cleaning its cage
- Seeing to its emotional and social needs
When a depressive episode strikes, it can be hard to get out of bed. Having a small pet to look after motivates many people.
Of course, keeping pets, even small, low-maintenance ones, works best when a depressive disorder is mild to moderate. Severely depressed people may be unable to take care of themselves, let alone an animal.
For example, owning a dog is known to promote regular exercise. Exercise has been shown to alleviate and manage symptoms of depression and anxiety. However, those who deal with severe depression may be unable to even feed themselves.
Human beings are tactile creatures. People often talk about the comfort of having ‘another heartbeat’ in the house. Playing with, petting, and interacting with companion animals can release the same chemicals in our brain as hugging a family member or friend.
This means that owning a pet is good for people with depression on a biological level. Physically touching another living thing on a regular basis is essential to reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Most studies focus on larger, more popular companion animals, like dogs and cats. However, small pets can be better for people with depression.
- Small Pets Are Accessible. It is more likely that small pets will be allowed into rented accommodation.
- Small Pets Require Less Rigorous Daily Care. Unlike a dog, a gerbil doesn’t need to be walked regularly. Its food may only need refilled once every few days.
Choosing Small Pets To Help with Depression
The best relationships are mutually beneficial. This is true for humans and their animal companions. By choosing a small pet that suits your personality and living conditions, you will improve its life as well as your own. After all, life in a shelter is not exactly relaxing for most animals.
However, if you deal with depression, it’s important to make sure your pet will be properly cared for, even during your bad days.
Ask for Outside Advice
Sometimes it’s difficult to choose a pet objectively. You may feel like a high energy companion is what you need, but is it really? It may help to ask your therapist or friends about suggestions. Based on your:
- The frequency of your down days
Get A Pet During Good Times
It’s smart to buy your pet at a time when you feel relatively ‘up’ or when your symptoms are under control. It will be easier to bond with your pet when you have the energy to do so. Likewise, it’s easier to get into the habit of fulfilling your pet’s needs during good days.
Consider Your Own Needs
With so many small pets you choose from, consider your needs.
- Are you a morning or night person? This will influence if you want a nocturnal animal, or one that’s up at normal human hours. If you happen to suffer from insomnia during bad days, a night-time animal might help you.
- What are your living conditions and budget? While rats and bearded dragons may live in habitats of roughly the same size, rats are substantially less expensive to care for.
- How much time and attention can you give? Parrots need more intellectual stimulation and emotional interaction to be happy and healthy. If you know your depression hits hard, it may be wise to get a less interactive pet.
Best Small Pets for Depression
Once you have your ground rules, you can start looking for an animal companion. Here are small animals that best help people with depression:
Rodents are common pets because of their intelligence and charisma. Among all your choices, gerbils are one of the best for people with depression. Why?
- Best kept in pairs
- Odorless compared to other rodents
- Require very little daily upkeep
They are also fairly cost-effective pets. Gerbils need specialized habitats, but the appropriate bedding and food are very affordable.
Of course, gerbils are intelligent, high-energy creatures. If you don’t give them the right toys or enough attention, you should expect bickering and chewing at the bars.
If you want mental stimulation, however, these gerbils will keep you on your toes. Bonding with them takes time and patience, but the payoff is well worth a gerbil’s ability to:
- Play games
- Recognize its owners
- Remember mazes and patterns
Furthermore, if you hit a rocky patch, you will find that gerbils are comfortable being left alone for days at a time. They only need food, water, and each other’s company. Gerbils are also quite good natured and not likely to bite. However, they are also not the cuddliest animals. They’re very small, so don’t expect relaxing afternoons on the couch.
Rats are some of the largest and most intelligent rodents. As pets, they are affectionate, energetic, and love interacting with humans. Like gerbils, they need a special habitat. Unlike gerbils, they need space to climb rather than dig, so their cages can be huge (and a little expensive). On the flip side, they’re relatively low-maintenance for those who are depressive.
- A rat is a clean, hygienic animal.
- Its bedding and food is easy to find (and affordable).
- You only need to add food to the cage every other day
- The bedding should only need changed once a week.
Due to its size and affectionate nature, a rat is far more likely to snuggle. You can cozy up with it if you are having a down day. However, there is a downside to owning a rat if you’re prone to major depressive episodes. The rat can quickly become lonely if you don’t play with it often.
Hamsters are without a doubt the most common small pet. Cute, chubby, and cheap, they are also fairly affectionate. These nocturnal creatures can be kept alone or with others. However, be sure to buy them together to avoid cannibalism. They may not take well to new hamsters being added to their enclosure.
These are fiercely independent little creatures. Be prepared to spend the necessary time with them to form a bond. This can make it a large investment for someone who struggles with frequent depression. However, if you’re prone to more infrequent episodes, you’ll find the bond lasts in between these times.
Hamsters can live in relatively compact spaces. However, you should offer them as large a habitat as you can and place toys inside for enrichment. Their bedding and food are very easy to find and incredibly affordable. Plus, most rental properties will allow a hamster. Just make sure it doesn’t cause any damage if allowed to roam free in your living space.
The downsides are that hamsters can be a little feisty. They’re more likely to bite than gerbils or rats. They’re also a little more independent, and may not always want you to handle or pet them.
Like rats, guinea pigs are intelligent and affectionate rodents. They enjoy human company and interaction. Unlike rats, however, they are very vocal and will tell you how they are feeling.
They do need large cages and should be kept in pairs. A rabbit hutch is a good size for a guinea pig. However, these pets must be kept indoors, protected from the worst of the weather. This makes it hard to find an indoor habitat that really works for them.
In any case, be sure to let your guinea pig out regularly and play with it. These pets need exercise to stay happy and healthy. If you leave your guinea pig unattended for a day, you may find it vocalizing its discomfort. This can be a great motivation for certain people with depression. For others, however, it may be overwhelming.
If you choose a guinea pig, the most expensive part will be buying the necessary habitat. Guinea pig food and bedding is easy to find and very affordable. Guinea pigs also have a longer life-span than many rodents, at around 7 years. As such, one will make a perfect long-term companion.
A chinchilla is considered an exotic pet, but it’s nonetheless fairly easy to find in pet stores. It’s an intelligent, happy, and interesting animal. Chinchillas require intellectual stimulation and emotional connection, so it is best to keep more than one.
Chinchillas need large cages with plenty of toys. They should be let out of the cage for exercise every other day, at least. That’s especially true when they’re young. Once you have the correct habitat, owning chinchillas is not overly expensive.
However, it can take some getting used to. Most of all, a chinchilla will need a dust bath for its hygiene routine. The process can be energetic, so expect some mess, too.
Chinchillas can be very affectionate once they have bonded with a person. You can expect a cuddle or two if you take the time to forge a strong connection. On the whole, they can be comfortably left alone for a day or two at a time. So long as they’re provided with food, water, toys, and a dust bowl, they’ll self-entertain. With another chinchilla for companionship, this can be even longer.
Like guinea pigs, chinchillas have long life-spans. In fact, a chinchilla in good health can live up to 15 years. This makes it a perfect companion, but also a big commitment.
Rabbits are often seen as quintessential small pets for children. However, in truth, rabbits are more comfortable in a home with adults. Rabbits are the ultimate prey animal. As a result, they are not overly comfortable with being lifted or kept in habitats where they have nowhere to hide.
House rabbits, too, like to run around and hide in small, dark spaces. When you get one, it is recommended that you research toilet training it. Rabbits can be trained to return to their hutch to urinate and defecate. With this habit engrained, you can simply let yours run around the house.
Once you form a bond with a rabbit, it is likely to be quite affectionate. All this takes is time and affection. If you’re having a bad day, well-bonded rabbits are happy to rest in your lap and accept petting.
While they will grow lonely if neglected for several days, most rabbits enjoy alone time. If you struggle with moderate depression, you shouldn’t find a rabbit’s need for attention to be overwhelming.
With a life span of 6 to 8 years, a rabbit can be a big commitment. However, bunnies do make perfect small pets for those who want a companion animal. Their affectionate and gentle nature will no doubt make you feel comforted and loved.
Exotic Therapy Animals for Depression
Of course, you don’t have to stick with rodents, or even mammals. The only real requirement is that you choose a pet with a baseline level of intelligence. It must actually benefit from human interaction.
Animals like spiders or snakes, for example, aren’t great pets for depression. They can find over-handling stressful and they have trouble bonding with humans. Other reptiles, however, can be great fits.
A bearded dragon can create a very strong bond with its owner. Once properly bonded, it may even start sleeping on you or cuddling with you. However, as a slightly exotic pet, bearded dragons are not for everyone.
- You may find it difficult to source one from a pet store.
- With a life-span of 10 to 15 years, on average, bearded dragons are long-term companions.
- If you get a bearded dragon it will need a heat/UV lamp to stay healthy.
It will also need a varied diet which includes:
Once you get into the routine of what it needs, however, you will find that a bearded dragon is a fairly low-maintenance pet. It’s pleased with sunbathing, hunting crickets, and lounging around its enclosure. If you have severe depression, you’ll find your bearded dragon happy to entertain itself for several days.
As it grows, however, it may need a larger vivarium. Those which are left isolated for a week or more will need a companion. Of course, food and water should always be provided. Despite having a slower metabolism, it still needs to eat regularly.
All birds can be affectionate and loving to some degree. However, parrots really make the best pets for those living with depression. A parrot of any kind is an intelligent and complex animal with a long lifespan. In fact, some parrots can live upwards of 50 years. This means any parrot you get will be your lifelong companion.
The benefits to owning a parrot are many. These birds are very clever and can often learn to mimic people. Even if yours can’t, it will still form a strong bond with you. In fact, you could grow to understand each other. That’s because parrots can get depressed as well. Loneliness, stress, or substandard living conditions will make your parrot:
- Potentially aggressive
While it may feel nice sharing a common problem, be sure you are ready to commit to it. The parrot will need a large cage and a varied diet. Additionally, lots of toys and attention is a part of its everyday needs. On the whole, if you want a pet that is your partner in crime, a parrot should really be your first choice.