Researchers are always on the lookout for new options to treat mood disorders, and several are generating interest. Although this therapy has not been adopted as standard treatments, it may be an intriguing option in the future.

It's well recognized that pets can have a beneficial effect on their owners. People with pets in their homes tend to be happier, have lower blood pressure and stress levels, and may even recover better after a heart attack than people who don't. So it's logical that researchers would be interested in whether animals can help individuals with mood disorders as well.

This practice, known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT), is different from basic pet ownership. In AAT, the animal—commonly a dog or dolphin—is trained to be a formal part of the therapeutic process. One randomized study published in BMJ of 30 people with mild to moderate depression found that those who had 10 one-hour sessions of playing and swimming with and caring for dolphins had greater reductions in their depression symptoms than participants who spent similar recreational time in the water without the dolphins.

However, dolphin therapy is not practical for most people. Dogs, on the other hand, are a much more convenient option, thanks to being portable and easily trained. One small, Israeli study looked at the effects of dog therapy in people with schizophrenia who were suffering from an inability to enjoy normally pleasurable activities, a symptom common in depression.

During weekly sessions, participants could choose from a range of activities such as petting, feeding, cleaning, or walking a dog. After 10 sessions, participants had formed a bond with and looked forward to seeing the dog and also improved their personal appearance in anticipation of the sessions. A control group who had therapy sessions without the dog did not show the same improvements.

Bottom line: Only a handful of well-designed studies have evaluated the benefits of AAT for psychological disorders, but the results show promise. AAT is currently available, and it may be an option if you have a psychological disorder that is resistant to traditional treatment.

However, AAT is not a substitute for any medication or psychotherapy your doctor has prescribed, and it may not be covered by your insurance. For more information on AAT, visit the website of the Delta Society at www.deltasociety.org.

Publication Review By: Karen L. Swartz, M.D.

Published: 20 Aug 2013

Last Modified: 20 Aug 2013