It’s commonly thought that having a companion animal — be it a dog, cat or bird — is good for the owner’s mental health.
A new study suggests that’s not so, at least for people with severe mental illness and for pets that aren’t trained therapy animals. Pets may, however, be an important part of the social network for folks with severe mental illness.
Having pets was not significantly associated with the well-being, depression, anxiety or loneliness scores for owners with a range of severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and psychosis, according to the study published July 14 in the journal Human-Animal Interactions.
This research followed up on a 2021 survey, in which researchers found a self-reported decline in mental health with animal ownership. This may have been due to pandemic restrictions and the challenges of looking after the animal in lockdown.
“In the absence of COVID-19 restrictions, a possible explanation for our current findings could be that the added responsibility of animal ownership may still exacerbate other potential stressors experienced by people living with severe mental illness. This includes the cost of food, veterinary bills and uncertainty over housing,” lead author Dr. Emily Shoesmith, a research fellow at the University of York in the United Kingdom, said in a journal news release.
“Our findings may also imply that animal ownership and the perceived strength of the human-animal bond is not sufficient to benefit participants’ well-being, but we also need to consider the animal’s temperament and characteristics,” she added.
For the study, the researchers surveyed 170 people in the United Kingdom. Among them were 81 people who owned at least one animal. Most perceived a strong bond with their closest companion animal.
In the updated study, the researchers saw a marginal increase in well-being scores. They couldn’t compare scores on anxiety and depression because those weren’t included in the 2021 study.
Shoesmith noted that trained therapy animals often enhance well-being for individuals diagnosed with mental illnesses, but they are selected and taught to be friendly, obedient and have a relaxed personality trait.
“It is vital for future research to further explore the mediating factors influencing the complex relationship between humans and animals to further our knowledge of the more specific requirements of those living with severe mental illness who own animals,” said Dr. Elena Ratschen, an associate professor of health services research.
Well-being and mental health scores aside, the study did find near “ceiling levels” of attachment to study participants’ animals. More than 95% of respondents reported that their animal provided them with companionship, a source of consistency in their life and made them feel loved.
Companion animals may be a vital part of the social network for people who have been diagnosed with a severe mental illness, the authors noted.
Ratschen said future research should include more participants and compare a wider variety of animals.
“It is not surprising that dogs and cats were the most frequently reported animals owned by this sample, and is consistent with the numbers reported in previous mental health populations and the general population,” she said.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on the health benefits of having pets.
SOURCE: Human-Animal Interactions, news release, July 14, 2023
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