When we’re depressed, the smallest actions can seem to require more energy and effort than we can muster. We find it easy to put off things that are for ourselves (and sometimes for other people, too). That’s a big reason why an emotional support dog or cat is so effective: We know they’re entirely dependent on us and that the love they give is unconditional, so we owe it to them to take care of their basic needs — because we know that they’ll be there for us when we need them most.

An emotional support cat, dog or other animal may be the one thing that can get us out of our own heads and on to thinking about something else. For those with depression, pets provide emotional support in so many ways:

Pets get us moving. Going for a walk, run or bike ride may feel like the last thing we want to do, but we know if we don’t, Spot will be in deep distress. Study after study has proven the effectiveness of exercise in alleviating depression, even if it’s just walking your support dog every day. Recognizing that many people struggle to find the motivation to exercise, the Mayo Clinic suggests identifying a physical activity you are most likely to actually do, and taking your pet for a walk definitely falls into that category. So go ahead and lean on that four-legged motivation!

Pets provide positive distraction. Changing the cat litter may feel like a big chore, but we do it — because Fluffy deserves a clean home, and the sight of a clean litter box makes you (and Fluffy) feel better. Getting in the car and interacting with a grocery store cashier might appear too big an obstacle to overcome, but we grab our keys and go because dogs need to eat — and watching a puppy chow down is real entertainment. Besides, with an ESA-certified support dog, he can go with you to get his food! Sometimes we just need to trick our brains into thinking about something besides our challenges, and emotional support animals are perfect for that.

Pets jumpstart our feel-good hormones. Depression has physiological symptoms that a hearty “dose” of the right hormone can significantly relieve. A dog that’s happy to see us, as evidenced by a wagging tail, licking tongue, paws on our chest, or a therapy cat that starts purring or rubbing its face on us sets off the release of serotonin in the brain, which helps us feel good. Seeing how excited Buck is to get in the car with you will help you feel better about getting out of the house, too.

Pets help establish a routine. We often fall out of our routines when we’re depressed. This can have circular negative effects. When we get behind in chores or miss appointments, we get more anxious and depressed. Caring for a pet helps us keep to a routine of feeding, walking, playing, cleaning up after, etc. Your emotional support animal is a place to start building a larger routine around for other parts of your life, with your cat or dog right by your side.

Pets renew our sense of purpose. In an article published in the journal BMC Psychiatry, researchers unequivocally stated that pets give us an additional sense of purpose for our lives. Individuals with depression commonly lose sight of why they’re here and what they should be doing. Not only do pets give us something to focus on outside of ourselves, they also give us unquestionable feedback that they recognize our efforts and love us for it.

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