A recent study conducted by researchers from the universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Southampton suggests that pets can actually alleviate mental health symptoms.
The study, which was published in BMC Psychiatry in February 2018, is the first systematic review of research related to the role of companion animals and analyzes the impact of pets on long-term mental health issues.
The researchers looked at 17 studies from the US, UK, Canada, Europe and Australia where participants had either been diagnosed with a serious mental health condition, had mental health issues associated with physical health conditions or a developmental disorder or had self-reported mental health conditions. The primary data collected in these studies focused on pet ownership and its relation to the management of mental health issues, particularly in times of crisis.
The studies examined the positive, negative and neutral impacts of pet ownership on mental health but overall showed that participants were better able to manage their symptoms and emotions because of their pets.
Themes that emerged from the review were that pets provided participants with emotional support, unconditional love and affection, stability and companionship. Participants felt they could confide in their pets without risk of judgment and that pets could bring humour into difficult situations. Pets encouraged social and physical activities and promoted exercise and interaction with nature. Caring for their pets gave the participants a sense of purpose and a task to focus on and was shown to lessen negative symptoms associated with mental illness. The study notes, “Indication of the potential benefit that pets convey to the experience of mental health comes from evidence detailing the benefits of pet ownership in relation to stress reduction, improved quality of life, and pets as promoters of social and community interaction”.
Some negative impacts were also surfaced, around financial costs, housing situations, pets that were poorly behaved and guilt over not managing pets successfully. Most negative comments revolved around horses and dogs and the research highlighted the importance of matching pets properly to the individual’s needs.
Dr. Helen Brooks from the University of Liverpool, said “This review suggests that pets can provide benefits to those with mental health conditions. However, further research is required to test the nature and extent of this relationship and the range of roles and types of support pets confer in relation to mental health. Pets by provided acceptance without judgement, giving unconditional support, which they were often not receiving from other family or social relationships.”
“We feel that pet ownership has a valuable contribution to mental health, so should be incorporated into individual care plans of patients”, said Dr. Kelly Rushton from the University of Manchester.
According to a 2017 survey conducted by Kynetec on behalf of the Canadian Animal Health Institute, cat and dog ownership in Canada has risen from 2014 to 2016. Cats outnumber dogs with 8.8 million cats considered household pets and 7.6 million dogs considered pets in 2016.