Can Pets Prevent Suicide?

“Everyone thinks of committing suicide at some time,” my walking partner said as we settled into a steady pace for the 5K Wauk for Suicide Prevention and Awareness this past Saturday.  We had both known people who have attempted and some who had succeeded at committing suicide.

Cocker spaniel giving author a hug
Buffy giving me a hug.

Some of these people had spouses, kids, or good friends—but did any of them have pets? Not just house pets that belonged to everyone in the family, but a pet that was truly theirs to care for?

Common threads shared by people who commit suicide include depression, anxiety, loneliness and isolation. A pet, especially a dog, can help with many of these issues.

How Owning a Dog can Prevent Suicide

Our dogs rub up against us asking for pets. Their deep brown eyes ask us what is wrong, and if they can help. They may not understand, but they feel our emotions—our pain.

  • Petting a dog, especially your own dog, helps reduce stress. Twenty years ago dogs stayed home while we tried to tackle the outside world alone. Now dogs are welcomed in businesses, hospitals, even in schools to help people cope with stress.
  • Pets provide entertainment. Puppies chase their tails, kittens pounce on things. Pets just act goofy and they seem to know what will bring a smile to our face. Pets make us laugh.
  • Dogs make us more social. Walking your dog in your neighborhood or in a nearby park gets you out and about and helps you meet people. My neighbors have become friends as I talk to them during my daily dog walks. Dogs help break the ice. Dog walking by flowers
  • You don’t feel alone. Coming home to an empty home feels lonely, but not when your dog yips and circles around you—demanding your attention and saying, “Boy I’m glad you’re here. Feed me—walk me!”
  • Pets demand our attention—they live in the moment. It’s hard to resist their staring at the cabinet containing their food, or their nudges for attention.
  • Dogs demand exercise—especially if you have a young dog. I’ve gone on many long dog walks just to keep my dog happy. Exercise releases serotonin, the happiness hormone.
  • Pets give you a sense of belonging. They need you. Who would care for them if you were not there? They would miss you.
  • Most of all, pets provide unconditional love. They don’t care what we look like or how we act, as long as we don’t abuse them, they love us—no matter what.

Companion pets especially help veterans suffering from PTSD as we have seen with the K9’s for Warriors campaign and with the recent Megan Leavey movie.

In Perfect Moments, a recent public radio broadcast of The Moth, Brian Finkelstein described working at a suicide hotline. Some of the key things mentioned were to find out the following information:

  • Has the caller developed a plan on how to commit suicide?
  • Have they taken steps today toward completing that plan?
  • Do they say, “I just want the pain to go away?”

Providing a pet may be one way to help someone who is depressed and considering suicide. But one needs to be careful, not all pets make good companion or therapy animals.

Suicide awareness week is September 10 – 16. Find a walk near you and keep the up the conversation and awareness. I did.

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27 thoughts on “Can Pets Prevent Suicide?

  1. I don’t know if everybody thinks about it at some point; I know I did. My advice from that is, “you can always do it. Right now, later today, tomorrow, next week … THERE IS NO RUSH. So you might just stick around and see if things get better.”

    I agree that there are many ways dogs can help with that.

  2. You make excellent points about the benefits pets bring to our lives. My pets have certainly helped me through some uncertain times. I wonder If anyone has studied a link between owning pets and suicide prevention.

  3. This is a really interesting topic! When I was first diagnosed with spondylitis (a type of arthritis), I was in pain quite a bit. It was difficult finding the motivation to get up many days let alone go through the daily routine.

    Then my dog developed cancer and had her back leg amputated. After her recovery, she got up every morning excited that she got breakfast. She anticipated her walks, her visits from neighbors. She continued to love life.

    Seeing her approach her disability in such a matter of fact way, help me deal with my own. If she could get up each day, so could I!

    So, while I wasn’t contemplating suicide, my dog was very helpful in getting me to enjoy life as is. I can see where a dog would really be helpful for depression or anxiety. We need to feel connected and we need to feel needed. A dog gives us all that.

  4. Pets are wonderful companions, and I know that they help many people with depression. I am glad that more people are talking about ways to help people who may be contemplating taking their lives.

  5. I suffer from clinical depression and I’m happy to say that even in my lowest of lows, I’ve never considered suicide. I’m a survivor. I can honestly say that my cats over the past 21 years have helped me, especially when I’m depressed.

  6. This is a great article about a difficult topic. Thank you for writing it! I didn’t know there was a suicide awareness week, so I’m glad to know that now. I wholeheartedly agree that pets can ultimately save people though for so many reasons. I know my dog is definitely a source of light during some of the darkest days.

  7. For a person who already has a pet but becomes suicidal, a pet gives a needed sense of responsibility. A pet needs food, exercise, and attention. A pet is a reason to get up in the morning and to stay up during the day and even to go work. The job will pay the bills that will come for pet care.

    There is a flip side to suicide that one should be also be aware of. A person whose pet dies can also become suicidal. There is no pet to care for, no routines to keep. The house is empty. The loss of a pet can cause a person to feel alone and unneeded. People who don’t have pets often lack awareness of how integral a pet can be. I’ve talked with people who have wanted to give up on life and have needed counseling to cope with the death of a pet.

    • Good point. All of us who have lost a pet feel an uncontrollable grief for a period. Although the pet is hard to replace, sometimes it does help to get another one to fill the routine. Although different, a new pet does help fill the void–at least for me.

  8. Suicide awareness is so important and I have heard some great success stories of using pets as emotional support animals. Personally, my pets (one cat and one dog) are a key part of preventing loneliness in my daily life. Walks with the dog are a big stress reliever and my cat is actually the one that greets me at the door when I get home. My house, and life, would feel much emptier without them.

  9. What an excellent post Sandy. It is so sad when people feel suicide is the only way out. I have never known anyone that took that route, and I’m afraid I don’t know enough to comment. I’m not surprised sharing your life with a pet may help you see a brighter and more positive side to life. If it wasn’t for the fact I have dogs, I would never know any of my neighbours, and I certainly wouldn’t get out and about as much as I do. Great article and such an important topic to call our attention to.

  10. Heavy subject – but a great post! I personally have struggled with anxiety as long as I can remember and bouts of depression as well, and I always tell people that more than any doctor, any medication, more than anything else my pets have helped me through the difficult times. My dogs especially have been wonderful teachers and I will forever be thankful for the lessons they’ve taught me. Thank you for helping to raise awareness about such important issues.

  11. A really great post and we commend you for writing about the topic of suicide and how pets can bring purpose and support to people (and visa versa)! We were involved in a research study investigating this very topic – it was illuminating and helped us cover depression, homelessness, and abuse topics much more thoughtfully. Thanks for sharing!

  12. This is a truly wonderful post Sandy, thank you for writing it! Thanks for including these resource links too. Pets can do so much for us, I believe a pet can give someone a renewed sense of purpose, a reason to keep fighting.
    Love & Biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

  13. It’s amazing what healing properties time with an animal can give! We visit a hospital often with a Karma because it offers so much to the patients AND the families and staff! Worth all of the time I can get up there!

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