The 7 Best Small Pets for Coping With Depression

Numerous studies have shown how dogs and cats can positively affect someone’s mental health. However, dogs and cats are not the best pets for everyone. Dogs, especially, are a big responsibility. They need a lot of training and exercise and can be quite expensive to care for.

Luckily, dogs and cats aren’t the only pets that can help people who are struggling with mental health disorders like depression. There are numerous small pets that are less expensive and even low-maintenance in terms of what type of care they need.

Today, we’ll talk about how small pets can help people who are suffering from depression. Of course, we’ll also be sharing a list of the best small pets for the job, and we’ll include information about each one. Finally, we’ll offer some advice on how to go about choosing the right small pet for your lifestyle.

How Pets Can Help With Depression

Anyone who has ever owned a pet can tell you how comforting it is, and there are several ways that pets can help people who are suffering from depression. The companionship pets provide helps reduce feelings of loneliness and can even boost one’s sense of self-worth by making them feel needed.

Pets can also help people maintain a regular schedule. Sometimes, getting out of bed can be incredibly difficult when you’re struggling with depression. Having a pet that needs care can be the reason to start the day.

Many people get caught in a vicious cycle of berating themselves when their disorder causes them to procrastinate by staying in bed too long. Getting out of bed for the sake of a pet can help reduce these feelings of guilt or shame.

There are also a number of studies that look at the effects of pets on mental health, and their findings are promising. Although it should be noted that overall research on the topic has mixed conclusions, we’ll focus on some more optimistic studies. For example, some studies have found that interacting with pets decreases stress levels and lowers blood pressure.

Others have found that pets play a vital role in how people cope with negative experiences and the symptoms of disorders such as depression. Pets were able to provide a distraction and encourage people to partake in a structured activity through interaction. Though pets will not magically cure anyone of their depression, they can offer comfort, routine, companionship, and fun.

What Is an ESA?

Those struggling with depression may benefit from an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). An ESA can be almost any animal and is very similar to a pet in that they don’t need specialized training. The main difference is that an ESA has to be recommended by a doctor.

Emotional Support Animals are allowed to live with their owners in apartments or rentals that don’t otherwise allow pets. Furthermore, those with ESAs do not have to pay a pet deposit or pet fee because the animal is considered a treatment rather than a pet.

However, to reap these benefits, you must have documentation from your doctor. Otherwise, landlords will not allow you to have a pet without paying pet fees (or at all). If you feel that you need a pet for the sake of your mental health and want to ensure you’ll never have to worry about no-pet policies, then you should consider getting an ESA.

The Best Small Pets for Depression

Now that you understand more about how pets can help with depression and know what an ESA is let’s get into the good stuff! Here, we will discuss the best pets for depression, along with information about each animal and why they might be a good choice for those struggling with mental health.


Tan and white rabbit laying in a cage

Rabbits are a great option for someone who wants a very soft, cuddly pet. Many rabbits are content to sit on their owners’ laps and be petted. Others are more playful, and you may see them “binky” (leap into the air) when they’re happy.

Rabbits that prefer play over cuddles may also excel in clicker training. Yes, rabbits can be trained to do tricks and even to come to you when called! For this reason, a rabbit could potentially be a good alternative to a dog.

Though there isn’t much research available about how rabbits can help with depression, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence about them. Many people find them to be a soothing choice of companion. They also live for up to 10 years, so they are as much of a time commitment as some dog breeds.

Guinea Pigs

Two guinea pigs standing in front of log hutches

Guinea pigs are well known for being classroom pets, but they can be lovely housemates for anyone of any age. However, they will need to get used to being pet and held and may be a little shy at first.

As long as being handled is a positive experience, guinea pigs can even become comfortable enough to sit on their owners’ laps and be stroked. They may even climb up your shirt and sit on your shoulder.

Some guinea pigs aren’t as keen to be held, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be a fun animal to have around. Owners can enjoy watching them explore the house and nibble on treats. They also tend to be vocal and will let you know if they haven’t had enough free time outside of their cage. Guinea pigs have a lifespan of about four to eight years.


White gerbil standing in red basket with hay

Gerbils are a popular choice of rodent because they are cute and clean, and their living spaces do not get very stinky. They’re best kept in pairs and can entertain each other if you’re having an off day and aren’t able to interact with them yourself. In fact, they can be left alone for up to a week as long as they have enough food and water.

However, this doesn’t mean that they require no care at all. They need mental stimulation, or they can become quite bored. In fact, gerbils are smart enough to remember mazes and patterns. If you provide them with deep bedding, they will enjoy burrowing pathways through it.

If you’re looking for a cuddly pet, then a gerbil may not be the right choice. While you can hold them in your hands, it takes time and patience before they will be completely comfortable with humans holding and petting them. However, they are not very likely to bite.

Overall, gerbils are relatively low-maintenance animals to care for. Their habitats do not need frequent cleaning, and they can be left to their own devices for short periods. They’re also inexpensive. Unfortunately, gerbils only have an average life span of about three years.


Tan hamster sits in wood chips while eating

Most people have trouble telling hamsters and gerbils apart, but they are physically and behaviorally different. For example, hamsters are nocturnal, whereas gerbils are active during the day.

If you suffer from insomnia, a hamster could be the better choice as their nightly activities could provide some distraction from the thoughts keeping you awake. However, because hamsters are nocturnal, they do not take kindly to being woken up during the day.

Hamsters are more likely to bite than gerbils; however, they usually only bite when they feel scared or threatened. They also prefer to live alone, although they can live together with other hamsters if they were born and raised together. Otherwise, adding a new hamster may result in fighting or even cannibalism (yikes!).

Like gerbils, hamsters are not especially cuddly pets. They can become comfortable with human interaction, but it takes patience and careful handling. Just like gerbils, hamsters are relatively inexpensive to keep. However, they do require their cages to be cleaned more often. Unfortunately, hamsters only live for an average of two years.


White rat standing in dark wicker basket

Rats are probably one of the most intelligent small animals on our list. They’re able to be trained to come when called and can even learn to perform tricks. What’s great about rats is that they are social pets.

They enjoy interacting with humans, especially if they’ve been handled gently from a young age. If they’ve always been treated with care, then they’re very unlikely to bite. Dissimilar to some of the other rodents on our list, they’re more likely to cuddle with their owners.

Because they are so social, they do best living in pairs. However, being social means they need more attention and are less independent. Though they are relatively clean animals, you’ll still need to change their bedding about once a week. Pet rats typically live for about two to three years.


Green parakeet perches on a finger

Though birds are fun to keep as pets, you don’t actually need to own one to reap the benefits they can have on your mental health. For example, a study published in 2017 found that people who watched birds outside their windows were less likely to be depressed. There was also a correlation with the number of birds they could see — the more birds, the better their mental health.

However, if you want to own a bird, we recommend parrots. There are many different types of parrots available, from the colorful red and blue birds you imagine when you think of the term to smaller varieties like parakeets.

In general, parrots are very social animals. Many can mimic human speech, which makes it feel like you’re actually talking to someone. Even those that aren’t able to “talk” tend to form strong bonds with humans to the extent that some people even consider parrots to be clingy. Owning a parrot will definitely make you feel like you have a loving companion.

However, this attachment means that parrots can easily become anxious, stressed, or even depressed if they are neglected. Parrots are also quite clever and need toys to help stave off boredom. They are definitely one of the more needy pets on this list and can be quite the commitment as some species of parrots can live for up to 50 years.

Bearded Dragon

Bearded dragon with its tongue out stares at hornworm

Not everyone is able to have a furry pet due to problems such as allergies; others just aren’t interested. Believe it or not, the bearded dragon is a great pet for people struggling with depression.

This is because they can form strong bonds with their owners when handled regularly and with care. They will even enjoy being held in your lap or cuddling with you. At the same time, they are not clingy or dependent.

You can leave them alone for days (with food and water), and they will be no worse for wear. However, if you don’t see yourself being the type to become cuddly with or interact a lot with a bearded dragon, then you should probably get two. It is not ideal for them to be completely isolated.

Bearded dragons are relatively relaxed animals who are happy to sunbathe and lounge in their enclosure. They also like to hunt crickets, so you can prevent boredom by supplying them with live crickets to eat.

How to Choose the Right Small Pet for You

We’ve listed many great options for small pets, so now we want to share some advice on how to choose one. Owning a pet is a commitment that must be taken seriously, as you will be responsible for the animal’s health and wellbeing. Therefore, it’s essential to be as sure as possible that the animal you’re interested in will fit into your lifestyle.

Do Your Research

Although we’ve provided information on each pet on our list, our article would be never-ending if we went in-depth about every single animal. Therefore, it’s important to research to ensure that you can care for whichever animal you’re interested in.

Find out more about the animal’s personality and behavior. Learn about what kind of care the animal needs: How often do you need to clean up after them? Do they need toys? Do they have nails that need to be trimmed? Do they ever need to be groomed or bathed? Do you need to pet-proof any parts of your house?

How much attention does the animal need, and are you able to offer that much attention? For example, some animals need to be taken out of their cages daily for hours. While you may be able to let them roam unattended for some of that time, you do need to interact with them, too.

You’ll also want to research the animal’s expenses. Find out how much it costs to purchase the animal and all of their necessities. Pay close attention to recurring costs such as food, bedding, litter, and veterinary care. Even if an animal is inexpensive to purchase, the recurring costs could be more than you bargained for.

Be Objective

When you see the cute face of an animal, suddenly all you want to do is take them home with you. You think about how lovely it would be to have such an adorable friend roaming around your home! But often, the fantasy does not include cleaning litterboxes or paying the veterinarian.

So reality must come crashing in. Some pets just aren’t suitable for your lifestyle, no matter how much you wish they were. Maybe you don’t have a safe space for a bunny to roam around in. Perhaps you work a lot and can’t provide the companionship a parrot needs.

You also need to be honest with yourself about how much work you’re willing to put in. Many animals need their cages to be cleaned weekly, with gerbils being one of the few pets that don’t require such frequent cleaning.

Bringing home a pet is always exciting, but what happens when that excitement wears off? Will you still be dedicated to caring for the pet? Will you still want to interact with them every day?

And finally, you must consider your mental health at its worst. During your worst depressive episodes, what are you like? Will you be able to care for an animal during those times, or will it be too overwhelming? Will you end up neglecting the pet?

These are all questions you should ask yourself and try to answer objectively. If you need help answering them, try asking a close friend or family member who knows you well and will be honest with you.

Answering these questions can help you determine which type of pet would work best for you. Maybe you don’t have it in you to take care of a rabbit even if you want one, but you do have the ability to care for a gerbil.

Wait for the Right Time

Getting any pet is all about timing. You need to make sure you’re financially capable as well as have enough time to care for or train the animal. Most small mammals do not need much (if any) training, but some can learn to use litterboxes or even learn tricks.

Depending on what type of animal you want, you may also need time to completely pet-proof a room. For example, rabbits love to chew on things. To allow them to roam safely, the room must have electric cords and other dangerous items kept out of their reach.

It’s also important to bring home an animal while your mental health is at a high. The times when you are struggling may be when you yearn for animal companionship the most, but these periods aren’t always the best moments to bring home a pet.

Poor mental health can prevent you from being objective about your ability to actually care for an animal because it can make you desperate for companionship. Buying a pet when you’re not truly ready or able to care for one may even cause you to neglect them.

You may be able to meet the animal’s basic needs in terms of providing food and water, but what if your depression is at such a low that you struggle to provide social interaction to the pet? Or you force yourself to do so, which makes the pet feel more like a chore than a friend? Not to mention, you’re more likely to leave the pet living in squalor as, during a depressive episode, you may lack the energy to clean up after them.

Mental health is full of ups and downs, so it’s best to wait for an up before bringing home a pet. This way, you’ll be better able to evaluate which pet you’re capable of caring for, and you’ll be able to bond and create habits (like cleaning their cage weekly) without it feeling like a chore.

Compact Confidants

Though research is still ongoing, many studies suggest that owning a pet can be beneficial to one’s mental health. While much of this research revolves around cats and dogs, that doesn’t mean other pets can’t be helpful, too.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence about how even small mammals, birds, and reptiles can make their owners feel more at ease. Of course, owning any pet is a responsibility and commitment one must be ready for. After all, you will be directly in charge of another creature’s wellbeing.

Before bringing a furry (or perhaps feathered or scaly) friend home, you should research it thoroughly so you know exactly what you’re getting into. As long as you’re responsible, owning a small pet can be both fun and comforting.

You’ll have a companion who doesn’t judge you and who may even enjoy interacting and cuddling with you when you could use a friend. They’re sort of like a compact confidant!