Can the love of a pet cure depression?

Dear Dr. Gott: A friend of mine recently adopted a cat on the advice of her psychiatrist as part of a comprehensive approach to her mild depression. She is also taking St. John’s wort, B vitamins (especially B12) and undergoing talk therapy. Does this sound right? Shouldn’t she be on a prescription antidepressant?
After talking to her, I think her doctor is a bit of a quack and is just taking advantage of her. My friend lives alone, having recently lost her husband of 50-plus years. I believe her depression is a direct result of her loss. Otherwise, she is in good health, takes no prescription medications, exercises daily, and has a healthful diet. She maintains her own home and yard and even grows some of her own fruits and vegetables.
Dear Reader: I don’t believe your friend is being taken advantage of. She and her doctor appear to have come up with a modest treatment plan. As with most medical conditions — physical, emotional or mental — it is best to start with the least drastic therapies first and work up to others only if necessary.
Vitamin B12 deficiency has a known relationship with depression. It, along with other B vitamins, aids the production of certain chemicals within the brain that are important in regulating mood.
It is not known whether low B vitamins cause depression or whether the depression causes the low levels. This is primarily because adequate levels of B12 are achieved through diet that includes animal products. Vegans have to supplement their diets. In depression, a loss of interest in eating can lead to poor nutrition, but poor nutrition can cause a B12 deficiency, which may culminate in depression.
Regardless of which causes the other, supplementing the diet with B12 and other B vitamins may lead to some improvement of symptoms. It is still important to maintain a healthful diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains with modest portions of fortified dairy products and lean meats or other protein sources.
St. John’s wort is an herbal dietary supplement that has long been used to treat depression, other mental illnesses and nerve pain. It has also been used as a balm for insect bites, burns and wounds, as well as a sedative and malaria treatment. Today, it is primarily used for depression, sleep disorders and anxiety.
There is some scientific evidence that the herb may be useful in treating mild to moderate depression, but it does not appear beneficial for those with major depression. It is also currently being studied as a possible treatment for a wide spectrum of mood disorders.
It is important that your friend, as well as anyone else taking the supplement, inform his or her physician of any other medications being taken, as it is known to speed up or slow down the breakdown of other drugs. It may also cause increased sensitivity to sunlight, headache, sexual dysfunction, fatigue, dizziness, gastrointestinal symptoms, dry mouth and anxiety.
Talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, is a drug-free process of treating mental and emotional disorders by talking about the condition and related issues. It is often helpful for people who do not wish to take medication or for those in whom medications have provided little or no improvement or have intolerable side effects.
This therapy can be used to treat many conditions, including grief, sleep disorders, depression, anxiety disorders, relationship issues, eating disorders and more. It can be used as a sole treatment or with medication. Single, couple, family or group therapy sessions are available.
Finally, you say that your friend recently adopted a cat on the advice of her physician. Getting a pet as part of a treatment plan for depression may not be typical; however, many authorities, including psychologists, researchers and veterinarians, agree that for some people, bringing a pet into the home can help reduce symptoms of depression or other mental illnesses.
It doesn’t assist people with severe depression and, in fact, may worsen it by adding the stress of taking care of another life when it is perceived nearly impossible to take care of their own; but for those who have had pets in the past and enjoy them and who have mild to moderate depression, it may make a drastic, positive change.
Pets can help ease loneliness, become trusted companions and friends, and provide unconditional love. These traits are especially important to people who don’t always feel as if they have friends or love.
If your friend’s cat helps her feel better, then so be it. I recommend you withhold your judgments. If your friend is getting better with these therapies, be thankful; if not, don’t say, “I told you so.” Be there for her, and let her know that you are there to help whenever she may need it.
To provide related information, I am sending you a copy of my Health Report “Vitamins and Minerals.” Other readers who would like a copy should send a self-addressed stamped No. 10 envelope and a check or money order for $2 to Newsletter, P.O. Box 167, Wickliffe, OH 44092. Be sure to mention the title.

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