What role does pet ownership play in mental health? Can pets help those with mental health conditions?
Research has shown that globally a staggering number of people experience a mental health problem at some time in their lives. Published in February this year, a systematic review aimed to explore the nature, extent and quality of the evidence demonstrating the role of pet ownership for people with mental health conditions (Brooks, Rushton, Lovell, Bee, Walker, Grant, & Rogers, 2018).
While the enduring relationship between humans and domestic animals is well documented, the potential benefits that owning a pet might confer specifically on mental health have received relatively little attention. Research to date has focused on formalised animal contact using animal assisted therapy. The role and effects of the less structured animal contact provided by pet ownership in everyday settings for people with mental health conditions remains under explored.
All participants in the studies included in the 2018 review had a diagnosable mental health condition or mental health problems associated with a diagnosed physical health condition.
The framework of the review examined three themes:
- Practical work includes activities such as housekeeping, personal care, diet and exercise. Illness-specific practical tasks such as taking medication, understanding symptoms, making appointments and preventive work to avoid crises.
- Emotional work relates to well-being, providing companionship and being a source of comfort when worried about everyday or specific illness matters.
- Biographical work relates to the tasks and generation of ontological security, the work required to retain a positive sense of identity and give life meaning again following diagnosis. This involves assessment of personal expectations, capabilities, relationships and biographical events.
Owning a pet really does improve quality of life.
Dog walking involves taking more physical exercise that promotes well-being and contact with nature, but all pets have the ability to distract and disrupt attention from one’s symptoms or upsetting experiences, such as hearing voices, panic attacks or suicidal thoughts. They provide a positive focus for activity because owners are required to do routine tasks to take care of them. This is an opportunity for reciprocity and for grounding, helping people to manage their own self-care and stay in the present, something that is particularly important for those suffering posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Pets act as conduits to social interaction and emotional nourishment. People who otherwise struggle to engage find it easier to talk to other dog walkers, for example, and it can help that the walkers’ attention is naturally focused on the dogs. Pets enhance the amount and quality of social interaction and their owners find the confidence to venture into new social situations with their pet, are open during social interactions and find they are able to engage more, too, with existing friends and family through their pet.
Having a pet dog was found to be beneficial in particular for military veterans with PTSD, reducing feelings of loneliness, depression, worry and irritability, and increasing calmness.
Sometimes people prefer relationships with pets over those with other humans and view pets as replacement family members. Pets provide a consistent source of comfort and affection that is available instantaneously, without request and pets appear to have a ‘sense’ of when such caring support is needed.
The dog approaches Karin when she’s crying and comforts her by lying next to her and licking away her tears (Bystrom, & Persson, 2015).
Pets respond in an intuitive way in times of crisis. They offer physical warmth and companionship. One study found people were able to confide in their pets when they were unable to open up to other people.
Sometimes if I talk to the cat, perhaps it’s like being in a confessional, I find I can address things that perhaps I wouldn’t have done normally if I hadn’t have had the cat to talk to (Ford, 2012).
Pets give unconditional affection and are non judgmental, which helps foster self-acceptance, trust and reliance and promotes emotional stability through the regulation of feelings, a source of connectedness, reassurance and normalcy.
Pets gave their owners a sense of self-worth, meaning and purpose. Since getting their pets, individuals felt better about themselves, felt pride associated with successfully caring for a pet, a sense of control and empowerment that are particularly important when people feel consumed by illness or when their ability for self-management is out of control.
Pet ownership connects their owners to valued activities such as hobbies that have a culturally sanctioned meaningful occupational and social role. The mastery achieved through the training of animals can contribute to a positive sense of self, making owners feel wanted and valued.
For Irene, taking care of her companion dog facilitated a change in her sense of self, from seeing herself as someone who ‘destroyed anything [she] loved’ to seeing herself as a loving, nurturing protector (Pehle, 2010).
Negative aspects of pet ownership
Financial costs and housing situations can have negative implications in pet ownership. A pet can represent a burden, especially if it is unruly, which could be detrimental to mental health and the guilt that owners experience if this is not managed successfully.
Fear of potential loss can also be negative, but may be balanced by an acknowledgement of joy in memories after the death of a pet.
The 2018 review demonstrated that those with diagnosable mental health problems can get the same benefits from pet ownership as the general population and given that levels of social exclusion and stigma are likely to be greater for people with mental health problems, pets may have a particular role in terms of enhancing quality of life.
The review suggests that pets provide benefits to those with mental health conditions through the intensity of connectivity with their owners and the contribution they make to emotional support in times of crises, together with their ability to help manage symptoms when they arise.
Because social isolation is both a cause and effect of mental illness, those suffering are among the most socially isolated, and policy makers and service providers may in future wish to consider ways to make it feasible for more people with mental health conditions to benefit from pet ownership.
Further rigorous research is required to reveal more about the range of roles pets play in relation to the mental health and well-being of their owners.
Brooks, H. L., Rushton, K., Lovell, K., Bee, P., Walker, L., Grant, L., & Rogers, A. (2018). The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence. BMC Psychiatry, 18(1). doi:10.1186/s12888-018-1613-2
Bystrom, K.M., & Persson, C. A. (2015). The meaning of companion animals for children and adolescents with autism: the parents’ perspective. Anthrozoös, 28(2):263–75. doi:10.1080/08927936.2015.11435401
Ford, V. (2012). What role, if any, can companion animals play in recovery from serious mental health difficulties? University of Surrey.
Pehle, M.A. (2010). Healing relationships with companion dogs in the therapeutic process: An exploratory qualitative study. AAI3406177, p.3365.