Adopting an animal when depressed
October 28, 2011 7:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to adopt my first dog. I have some general ideas down. Medium size, medium activity, short coat. I have space for it and all the time in the world for it as I'm home 24/7. What I need to know are people's experiences with mental illness and owning a pet.

I have life long depression that will not be going away anytime soon. I'm pretty med resistant. I will never be the type that springs up from bed with joy to face the day. I basically will be enduring life until it ends. I accept this and am trying to make the best of it.

I would like to bring a dog into my life as I've heard pets are good for depression and I've just always loved them. I am just not sure if it is fair to bring an animal into my life from its side. I do not want to be in a position where my mood harms the dog any.

I am also worried about if I am able to bond with an animal and love it to the degree it needs.

Is it fair to get a dog when you are depressed? Have you? Were you able to bond with it? Is there anything special extra you have to do when you have a dog and depression?
posted by kanata to Pets & Animals (36 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I am just not sure if it is fair to bring an animal into my life from its side.

Compared to an entire life spent in an animal rescue (no exaggeration, many animals arrive as puppies and die in old age without ever having been adopted) or being put down, if you're confident you can provide the animal with its physical needs, adequate mental stimulation, and some affection even if you're just going through the motions and not actually feeling anything, I think a dog will be so, so, much better off with you no matter what your mood is like.

If you don't have much energy, there are so, so many lazy-ass dogs out there that are not going to be springing up from anywhere to face the world and won't need you to be doing so yourself. And there are so many elderly dogs too who would just love a chilled out, safe, relaxed space to call home. You can also get a second dog to keep the first company. In my experience, two dogs isn't twice the work, it's more like 1.2% of the work (though it is twice as expensive.)

I think maybe the best thing for you to do would be to find a couple dogs to foster before committing to one. Animal rescue organizations are always in dire need for people to do this. This way, you can find a dog whose needs mesh well with what you are able to provide. Also, as to the worries about bonding, the director at the shelter I volunteer with "warned" us that "failed fosterers" are really common. Being a failed fosterer is when you can't handle it when it is time to give the animal back to be adopted and you realize that you are never going to give up this animal.
posted by cairdeas at 7:33 PM on October 28, 2011 [12 favorites]

Do you think you can feed a dog a couple times a day and take it outside to do its business 3-4 times a day, every day, for 10-15 years? If you do than great! As long as you get a dog with an appropriate activity level (sounds like you'll want a lazy one), and you're not going to be actively nasty to it, you'll be able to give a pooch a decent life, better than many.
posted by ghharr at 7:45 PM on October 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

The thing about dogs is that they don't really need you to spring up to greet the day with joy. They need you to feed them, take them on simple outings like a stroll down the street, see to their basic medical needs, and give them some affection which can be as simple as letting them cuddle up next to you on the sofa or even sit at your feet. And what will you get in return for that? LOVE. And loyalty.

Choose a mellow dog, or an older dog. If you go through a rescue group it's likely that you'll find people who will have fostered the dogs for weeks or even months, and will know the dog's personality quite well. (You may even find the same when working with the pound; some have devoted volunteers who really get to know the animals.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:51 PM on October 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

DO IT. There is a ton of evidence that pets help with depression. I'd actually go for a slightly more energetic dog that will MAKE you take him for a walk once in a while.
posted by miyabo at 7:53 PM on October 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yeah - as a depressive myself, I'd support your decision. When you are feeling really low and don't want to get out of bed, there is nothing like knowing that your pet is totally dependent on you, to get you up. There's nothing like knowing that their walk is the high spot of their day, to get you out of the house. Even on days when you feel you just can't face anyone, being with a dog makes you anonymous. If you feel too visible as you walk, you can always talk to the dog (they love the attention!). People say hi to the dog, not you. You suddenly find that you have friends all over the neighborhood, without even realizing it.
A word of warning. Most shelter dogs take a while to bond. We have adopted three shelter dogs now -- every one took about 18 months to settle. Our current girl would not venture further than the front porch for weeks, in case she lost us. It takes a while - in both directions. But you wake up one morning to realize that you'd be desolate without them. It really is infallible,
My advice would be to visit some shelters and take your time. Take along some dog treats and say hi to the dogs - they'll love you! Visit over a few weeks until you see a dog that you just can't bear to leave there. You'll know it, when that happens. Go for it.
posted by Susurration at 7:54 PM on October 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

The biggest thing is to plan ahead for down days, so your pup isn't affected by it as much.

Have an extra supply of food and treats, in case you can't leave the house. Get a dog walking/sitting service when you're in a better state of mind so you can activate them if you end up frozen. Form a relationship with a vet right off and put money away for care (some vets will let you load an account with them - not sure if that's a good idea, but it's certainly not a horrible idea).

A thing that helped me a lot with my critters during the worst of my depressions was thinking of them as allies instead of as responsibilities. It made taking care of them and responding to their interest a lot easier.

If you get the dog from a shelter or rescue, many of them will be willing to rehome if it doesn't work out for some reason (like if you're worried for their safety after getting into a valley). In fact, some aren't just willing - they guarantee/require it.

Critter companions really can help relieve depression. I've seen and experienced it time and again. Just don't be afraid to reach out for help if you find yourself overwhelmed for the sake of either of you.

May the perfect pup find you as soon as you are ready!
posted by batmonkey at 8:00 PM on October 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

The one word of caution I would add is --

I would very seriously consider whether it was a good idea to get a dog above your own energy level so that you would need to push yourself. This does work really really well for some people. But for me, for many years I had a dog who was above my energy level, and meeting his needs was a burden. I don't even have depression, and I loved that dog more than I have loved any other creature on this earth, and it was still a huge struggle to force myself to meet his minimum exercise needs every day, and there was all this guilt that I should have done more and more for him around that.

So just be careful with this.
posted by cairdeas at 8:03 PM on October 28, 2011 [6 favorites]

I love my lazy dog, who has just enough energy to get me to take him for a walk on days when I'd really just rather stay in bed. For everybody, but especially if you suffer from depression, dogs make you a better person, I think.
posted by layceepee at 8:27 PM on October 28, 2011

I would absolutely encourage this, especially as having a dog will make you keep to a daily schedule even if you aren't feeling like it, which can be really hard to do when you live alone and deal with depression. You may feel like skipping meals, but a dog never will. I would recommend considering a slightly older dog (even a young adult, such as older than a year) if you're worried about a lot of energy in the beginning, and even age depends based on the breed. I would also recommend asking for some suggestions on trainers in the area, or looking into some books or previous askme threads, so that you have some support in establishing commands. Adopting a dog is a lot of work in the beginning, but it will get easier and better. A well-trained dog will mean much less stress for you in the long run, especially on days when you're just not feeling it. I also agree with looking at dogs at your own energy level. It's said in the dog-training world that dogs want exercise, discipline and affection- provide those, and meet basic needs, and your dog will be happy, and so will you.
posted by questionsandanchors at 8:27 PM on October 28, 2011

Are there breeds known for low energy or medium energy? I know enough that I won't be able to have a dog that needs multiple runs a day but a few mellow walks is what I'm capable of a day. I am looking for an older dog as I think they have harder times getting adopted from the SPCA and us old folks have to stick together.
posted by kanata at 8:29 PM on October 28, 2011

Are there breeds known for low energy or medium energy?

Absolutely, and not only that, it varies within breeds too, so if there's a particular breed you really like, you might be able to find an individual who's close to your desired level. BlahLaLa is totally right that many rescues/fosterers will be able to tell you a lot about each individual dog's personality.

Greyhounds come immediately to mind as a notoriously lazy breed.
posted by cairdeas at 8:33 PM on October 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

And chow chows have a reputation for being relatively low energy, though I've had a mixed bag with that. My first dog was chow x border collie, and definitely inherited the relentlessly energetic border collie genes there, and was like that well into old age. One of the dogs I have now is a 3 year old chow x ?, and all he wants to do is lay on the porch sofa all day, and bark at things from time to time. He loves walks too but more for the changing scenery factor than the exercise.
posted by cairdeas at 8:39 PM on October 28, 2011

People will say Basset Hounds are a lazy breed, but mine would love to run all day so like a poster said above it's dog specific. I bet if you are adopting they will be able to match you with a lower energy dog. Good luck!
posted by meta87 at 9:02 PM on October 28, 2011

I'll vote Rottweiler as a lazy-ass breed. We adopted our girl two years ago and although she looks like she would be a first class exercise machine, she is a lazy carpet of a dog. She likes nothing more than to nap in the sun or with her head in my lap.
Good luck, it sounds like you are on your way to being owned by a dog! It's even better than you imagine it will be.
posted by msali at 9:04 PM on October 28, 2011

I had a corgi cross as a kid, and he was a total sloth, except for about five minutes a day of excited wiggling (greeting me when I came home, and before dinner). He liked walks, but not long ones and was happier just staying inside on rainy days. And he was crossed with a Jack Russell, which are notoriously high energy breeds, so I bet a purer corgi would be even more of a lazybones.
posted by lollusc at 9:10 PM on October 28, 2011

I think an older lazy dog would be perfect for you, and you'd be perfect for the dog. I've never had depression as such, though I do get Winter SAD and if it wasn't for my dogs climbing on the bed for a hug I doubt I'd want to get up some winter mornings.

There are lots of quieter dog breeds out there, as it sounds like you are thinking of a rescue, try and find an organization that does fostering that way the foster parents will have some idea of the dogs temperament in a home as opposed to in a kennel environment, not all dogs show well in the stress of kennels.

If you don't mind small dogs a lot of the traditional lap dog (like a pug) don't need a lot of walking (little legs) and are in heaven if they can just sit next to you on the couch with their head on your knee.
posted by wwax at 9:24 PM on October 28, 2011

Nthing an older dog; they are hard for rescues to adopt out since a lot of families want puppies or dogs that will be around a while, and they can be very low energy. A lot of the popular breeds out there like labradors are high energy when they're young and then hit a wall and turn into loving, lazy lumps. I have two lab mixes and one of them, at the advanced age of three years, is already perceptibly calming down and mellowing out.

Having my dogs has been a really great thing for my mental health. Even when you don't love yourself and you find yourself fundamentally unloveable, they keep on loving you anyway.

One thing to keep in mind is that you and the dog may not click immediately. With both of my dogs it took me a few months, and those few months were pretty hard: I had all the responsibility of being a dog owner, and all of the annoyances, and yet I wasn't really sure I even liked this dog. But in both cases there was a moment - and in both cases I remember what the moment was - when I realized I needed the dog as much as it needed me.
posted by troublesome at 9:34 PM on October 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

As someone with lifelong depression who has an adopted dog, I think with the right dog this could greatly benefit both you and the dog. You sound like a thoughtful and compassionate person (or you wouldn't be so concerned about how your depression might affect a dog), and you have the space and time - I'd encourage you to go for it!

I find dogs to have excellent anti-depressant powers. Unlike me my dog can easily experience pure joy, simply by running in the sand or seeing someone she likes. I can't help but be a small bit cheered up to see such genuine happiness. Dogs are pure of heart. They just enjoy your company. They don't judge you.

Sometimes I have a tendency to not want to leave the house. The dog is good just to force me out of the house for a change of scenery and some fresh air.

It did take me a while to bond with her but it did happen. Agree with the other people who have suggested trying an organization where they might be able to match you with a dog who has a good energy level and personality for you.
posted by asynchronous at 9:52 PM on October 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

Our older basset hound is the laziest, best natured dog I've ever known. His fur isn't very high maintenance but he does drool. A lot. Too much.

I agree with others that adopting from a rescue that knows their dogs is awesome. If you can adopt from a no-kill place you'll also be making room for them to take in another dog which is like helping out TWO animals!
posted by Saminal at 9:57 PM on October 28, 2011

I think I'd second msali's rottweiler suggestion. I've never owned one but an ex-gf did and I spent a lot of time around him. They're naturally inclined to be 'helpers', are incredibly loyal/protective, and as such seem to adapt well to their owners' moods. If you are feeling like just sitting indoors all day, the roti will probably be more than happy to lay with his head on your feet/on your lap. But if you are having a good day and want to go to the park, he/she will trot along a few feet ahead of you happily. Basically I'm saying they seem to be pretty versatile emotionally, which would suit someone with depression perfectly.
posted by mannequito at 10:04 PM on October 28, 2011

If you're the sort of person who doesn't like messy surroundings, you might prefer a breed that doesn't shed. You'll need to be able to afford to get it clipped, though.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:15 PM on October 28, 2011

Make a schedule of what you will do with your dog. Make sure you are committed to spending time giving your new family member the walking, playing, petting and training s/he needs. As someone who struggles with depression, I find it helpful to pre-plan the things that force me to do something other than hide in my home -- my dog is good at getting me out and because she is so joyful about playing, it usually helps lift my mood some, too.

And I cannot over-recommend the benefits of clicker training. It's fun for both you and the dog. Just Google "clicker training" for tons of free resources.

Good luck.
posted by driley at 1:53 AM on October 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

You're already thinking this through pretty well, and I think with a bit of planning, you would be an excellent home for a mellow dog (or two). My situation is similar to yours, except I work during the day. I have two greyhounds, who I love with all my heart and whose company has benefited me beyond measure. They are peaceful, sensitive, silly, sweet dogs who like a regular routine and easy walks. Bonus: they are exceptionally clean dogs who generally shed very little. They give a structure to my days, get me outdoors no matter the weather, and are cuddlers on the couch with me in the evenings. I'm sure there are other breeds that could work as well, but my hounds have me convinced that greyhounds are the best fit for me.

If you'd like to learn more, I'd suggest reading Retired Racing Greyhounds for Dummies. Here's a list of greyhound adoption agencies -- and these groups are almost always looking for volunteers, which is a terrific way to get to know the breed and individual dogs. Feel free to memail me if you find you have questions -- I'll be happy to help.

Seriously, you can do this and do this well, and it will be a win-win for both you and your dog.
posted by vers at 6:06 AM on October 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some dogs need more interaction and attention, while others will give you more space. If you're not sure that you can all-the-time deal with a dog that is needy/clingy/demanding of attention, you may want to look for a somewhat more detached dog--sometimes described in breed descriptions as "aloof". I'll second the recommendation to look at greyhounds, which are both pretty low-energy and not real clingy/in-your-face.

If you were to walk into a room full of dogs, you would want not the one that runs right up to you all OH HAI PERSON, WANNA PLAY? nor the one that retreats, but the one that shows interest but waits for you to invite it into your space.

On the depression-specific angle, another thing to give a moment to consider is coping with the inevitable loss of what I hope will be your beloved pet. If everything goes well with your dog, I think having a second dog can be a good way to soften that blow.

Dogs are very good for helping you to learn to live in the present.
posted by drlith at 6:33 AM on October 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, do some research on breeds that might be good, but don't limit yourself to them. Go to and start investigating different breeds that have dogs available near you but pay close attention to the descriptions. My dog is mostly Lab, which is normally a high-energy breed, but she was middle-aged when I adopted her and she's the laziest thing I've seen, extremely affectionate, and good being at home (uncrated!) while I'm at work during the day. Basically, she's perfect. But if I'd asked someone "what dog is perfect for these needs" I'm sure no one would have said "A Lab!" You will do far better researching the personality of your dog than you will the breed, and I thinK PetFinder is really good for that.
posted by olinerd at 6:41 AM on October 29, 2011

Are there breeds known for low energy or medium energy?

Surprisingly, retired greyhounds. Universally known as the world's biggest couch slugs.

FWIW I credit my dog with vastly improving my mental health. I acquired the dog after three weeks spent sobbing on the couch watching TV. It just so happens that I ended up watching a lot of Animal Planet and decided one day to go visit my local shelter. (It took me another three days to actually get up and do that, but I did.)

All of the dogs in the yard came rushing up to the window to see me; except one. Who sat by the back wall, shaking and terrified of the other dogs, the people and Jesus even the food bowl. That was the dog that clearly needed to get out of there the most, and that was the dog I asked to see. She ignored me when I spoke to her, like I wasn't there and none of this was happening. She didn't react to being touched. She had been horribly abused and was deeply traumatised. I basically took her not because we were this great match, but because I could meet her needs (full time companionship, single dog household) and it was an act of mercy.

"Well," I figured, "even if we never bond, at least she'll have a better life."

I didn't save that dog's life; she saved mine. Her needs - to be walked, to be coaxed to eat, to be safe - trumped my need to do nothing because hers were ever so much more urgent. I have had rough patches since then, but never one as bad as the one she pulled me out of. It's just sort of not possible to be that non-functional with a dog who's well-being you care about. And the fact that she's blossomed is very rewarding. I know she's going to die one day, and that I'll be devastated, but knowing we made the second half of this dog's life a great one helps me be at peace with that. It has all been so worth it.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:52 AM on October 29, 2011 [16 favorites]

A pet is a friend and friends are anti-depressants.
posted by TheRedArmy at 7:46 AM on October 29, 2011

As long as you can face the day enough to take the dog out for a pee, it'll be fine. The knowledge that you have, in many cases, kept an animal from death is heartening. And being loved lifts your spirits. A dog that's a year or 3 old won't be as exuberant, so that's a great idea.
posted by theora55 at 8:08 AM on October 29, 2011

I did this a year and a half ago, and it was one of the best decisions I've made. Be prepared for a settling in period - the first few months I was so overwhelmed with how much I had to think about the dog that I wasn't sure I had done the right thing, though I wanted her so much I would never have admitted it to anyone at the time. Now she's just a part of my life, and she gets me out of the house whether I want to or not, and she sleeps with me at night and she is so damn happy to see me when I come home whether I've been gone for five minutes or five hours.

But I also managed to stumble on a dog that is pretty lazy, and I think that's part of why it works. I have to take her out, but I don't have to do any huge runs every day or anything. She's perfectly happy to sleep most of the day, go out for one or two mellow walks, and then go back to sleep again.

I thought I wanted a greyhound. I went to the shelter and ended up with a weird little beagle/shar pei mix. If you go to a good shelter and tell them the type of dog you want, they will be able to steer you towards the ones that will work.
posted by rosethorn at 8:36 AM on October 29, 2011

Put me down as another person with depression who loves having a dog. She helps me so much.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:15 AM on October 29, 2011

Having a dog will give you a reason to get out of bed every day (feed, walk, etc.). If you WILL get out of bed every day, then it will be good for both of you especially if you get a shelter dog. If you will NOT get out of bed every day, then it's probably not fair to the dog.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 1:58 PM on October 29, 2011

Dogs are great for mental health. If you can hold up your end of the bargain (and it sounds like you're on board for it), then it's an incredible relationship where you get unwavering love and loyalty from a furry lunk who you get to pat and scritch. And all for the cost of food and the occasional vet visit.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:21 AM on October 30, 2011

Well, I went ahead and did it. I looked around the SPCA but they only had large dogs (I don't have the room) or high energy labs. So I went to petfinder and fell in love with a picture there. I contacted the rescue group, passed a home visit and went and saw the dog on the weekend. Immediately took to her. Her name is Annie and she is totally not what I started out looking for. (I admit I fell for the cute face).

She is totally a loveable low energy dog so far. I've only had her two days and she hasn't barked once (which is odd and freaking me out a quiet!). She already has her pee spot in the yard and when I shut out the lights at night she jumps in my bed all ready to go. She slept so much last night that I was wondering if she was depressed about the move.

She's very shy around other dogs and had her tail tucked under for all of our walk today but hopefully she'll come out of her shell. She must've been hit a lot because when I reach to put on the leash or stand over her she cowers and she has a burn on her back from where the vet tech left her on a hot pad when she was fixed. But that seems to be all healed up now. Just a bald spot.

The one thing I wasn't prepared for is the amount of people who stop and talk. That's a little overwhelming for my introverted side but probably good for me.
posted by kanata at 9:20 AM on November 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

She slept so much last night that I was wondering if she was depressed about the move.

I bet it's more like she's relieved and feels safe.

Congrats! She is adorable :D
posted by cairdeas at 11:01 AM on November 7, 2011

Congratulations! FWIW, dogs sleep like... 20 hours a day. For real. Ours sure does! Ours also does not bark, at all, ever. For the first year I actually thought she had been de-barked but then I ran over her foot by accident and discovered she could indeed make noise.

We attribute her silence to the abuse she was subject to. She remains nervous, fearful of other dogs, cowers when we leash her up, frightened of loud noises and movement, and would prefer no stranger ever touched her, ever, thank you. This is after 5 years of loving and safe care where she's never, ever been hit. Despite the fact that our dog looks like a neurotic freak to other people, we know how vastly she's improved and how much healthier and dog-like she is now, and how all of this patience has really paid off over the years.

I hope you guys have the same experience :)

Tip: Leash her from below and not above - ie, rotate the D-ring under her chin, and clip the lead from below her. It's less threatening.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:34 PM on November 7, 2011

how wonderful for both of you! yay!
posted by batmonkey at 5:01 PM on November 7, 2011

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