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Despite strong bonds, pet ownership may not improve severe mental illness

A recent study conducted by the University of York challenges the assumption that pet ownership is beneficial for individuals living with serious mental illness. The results of the study indicate that the nature of human-animal interactions is more complex than previously thought.

For many people, companion animals such as dogs, cats, birds, and fish have been seen as pillars of emotional support, providing consistency and companionship in life. This belief has become more prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people turned to their pets during periods of isolation and lockdown. 

However, the current study suggests that for those suffering from serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia, the benefits of pet ownership may not be as significant as initially believed.

For the investigation, the researchers surveyed 170 UK-based participants diagnosed with severe mental health conditions, among whom 81 reported owning at least one pet. 

No significant improvements in mental health

Despite the majority of pet owners reporting strong bonds with their animals and citing them as significant sources of companionship and love, the study did not show any statistically significant improvements in mental health and feelings of loneliness in comparison to those without pets.

The study followed up on an earlier survey conducted in 2021 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which examined the potential effects of pet ownership on mental health. 

Curiously, those previous findings suggested that people with serious mental illness reported a decline in mental health when they had an animal. The stress of caring for their pet during lockdown most likely exacerbated their mental impairments.

“It is now increasingly assumed that companion animals are beneficial for all owners’ mental health in most or all circumstances, but this may not be the case,” said Dr. Emily Shoesmith from the University of York’s Department of Health Sciences. 

“The pandemic provided a unique opportunity in which to look more closely at this question, and we found that whilst many participants with serious mental illness reported that their animal was a ‘lifeline’ during this time, the benefits may have been outweighed by the additional stress and anxiety caused by caring for an animal in the lockdown context.”

In the current survey, which was conducted post-pandemic, no significant association between pet ownership and enhanced well-being, depression, anxiety, or loneliness was found.

Complex relationships

However, it is important to note that the participants still valued their bonds with their pets highly. This suggests that a variety of external factors might influence a complex relationship between pet ownership and mental health.

For instance, stressors associated with pet ownership, such as food and veterinary costs, uncertainty over housing, or even the type of pet owned, may all contribute to the overall impact of pet ownership on mental health.

“One 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,” said Dr. Elena Ratschen, also from the University of York’s Department of Health Sciences.

“The findings suggest that the nature of human-animal interactions is complex. The bond between owners and animals was perceived to be high in this study and is undoubtedly very important in people’s lives. It is not necessarily reasonable, however, to assume that it is a means to improve symptoms of serious mental illness or disperse feelings of loneliness in a highly disadvantaged population of people with these illnesses.”

Advantages of pet ownership 

Pet ownership offers numerous benefits, both psychological and physiological, for individuals and families. Here are some of the main advantages:


Pets provide companionship, comfort, and emotional support. Often treated as part of the family, pets can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Physical health benefits

Regular physical activity such as walking or playing with a pet can help maintain or improve cardiovascular health. The American Heart Association has associated pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, with a reduced risk for heart disease and greater longevity.

Mental health benefits

Interacting with pets can reduce stress and anxiety levels. The simple act of petting an animal can release an automatic relaxation response. Pets can also distract from negative thoughts and provide a sense of purpose and routine.

Social interaction

Pets, particularly dogs, can help their owners to meet other people, fostering new friendships and encouraging social interaction in places like parks.

Teaching responsibility

For children, having a pet can teach them about responsibility, empathy, and caring for others. It helps to instill a sense of nurturing at a young age.

Improving immunity

There is some evidence suggesting that children growing up in a home with “furred animals” will have less risk of allergies and asthma.

Therapeutic benefits

Therapists often use pets in various forms of animal-assisted therapy because they can help people relax, reduce fear, and relieve anxiety.


Pets require a regular feeding and exercise schedule. Having a consistent routine can keep pets calm and balanced, and their human counterparts can benefit from this routine as well.

Unconditional love

Pets offer unconditional love, which can be very comforting, provide emotional security, and improve the mood of their owners.


Some pets, like dogs, can provide a sense of safety and even serve as home protectors.

It is important to note that pet ownership is not for everyone and it’s crucial to consider the responsibilities involved before getting a pet. It involves a long-term commitment, financial resources, and time for proper care and attention. 

Furthermore, potential pet owners should always consider adopting from a shelter where many animals are in need of a loving home.


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