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When it comes to mental health, pets may help more than harm

In recent years, it’s become more accepted that pets may have a positive impact on people with mental health conditions. However, an analysis of research around the therapeutic benefits of pets has been lacking.

So Dr. Helen Brooks of the University of Liverpool put together a team to look at the evidence. The researchers – from the University of Manchester and the University of Southampton as well as Liverpool – searched nine databases and looked at 17 studies from around the world about the effects of pet ownership on people with chronic mental health conditions.

“To be eligible for inclusion, studies had to be published in English and report on primary data related to the relationship between domestic animal ownership and the management of diagnosable mental health conditions,” the researchers wrote.

The research team looked at the results of each study, both positive and negative, and split them into quantitative and qualitative research.

“Qualitative studies illuminated the intensiveness of connectivity people with companion animals reported, and the multi-faceted ways in which pets contributed to the work associated with managing a mental health condition, particularly in times of crisis,” they wrote.

Some of the themes the team spotted in the studies:

  • While petting an animal companion had mixed immediate results, some positive and some negative, pets could provide profound emotional support to people with mental health difficulties. In some cases, pets were a more comforting presence than human friends or family members. This was especially true in times of crisis, the studies showed.
  • People could tell their pets things that they were unwilling to voice aloud to a therapist or human loved one.
  • The need to feed, walk and otherwise care for pets helped provide a distraction and a routine when people had a spike in symptoms or went into crisis. Pets could also help disrupt symptoms such as panic attacks or auditory hallucinations. “They encouraged their owners to stay in the present avoiding worry and ruminations about past behaviours or concerns about the future,” Brooks’ team wrote.
  • In one study, patients self-reported needing less medication due to the presence of their pet.
  • Pet owners also reported that their pets pushed them to interact with others more, both with friends and family, and with strangers or acquaintances. “Interestingly, one study found that dogs increased social interactions that would not have been possible without their pet (e.g. other dog walkers),” the team wrote. However, this benefit varied by pet and number of pets.
  • Two quantitative studies found that pet owners scored higher on meaningful activity scales and that they felt better about themselves than those without pets.

The researchers did note some negatives: poorly behaved pets could add stress to people already dealing with the stress of a mental health condition, and they were an added financial burden. Pets should be carefully matched to the person, several of the studies warned.

They could also be an obstacle to some of the goals patients set for their own recovery. And losing a pet could – unsurprisingly – have a negative effect on mental health, the studies showed.

Overall, though, the research analysis seems to show that pets bring more positives than negatives with them.

“Despite the mixed evidence from the quantitative data, the participants included in the review enjoyed keeping their animals and believed that they gained psychological benefit from these relationships as demonstrated by the thick descriptions derived from the qualitative data,” the researchers wrote. “The review demonstrated that those with diagnosable mental health problems can infer the same benefits from pet ownership as the general population and pets may have a particular role in terms of enhancing quality of life given that levels of social exclusion and stigma are likely to be greater for this population.”

That said, most of the existing research is focused on anecdotes and self-reporting. More quantitative research is needed, the team wrote.

The new review of evidence has been published in the journal BMC Psychiatry. Funding was provided by the National Institute for Health Research’s Programme Grants for Applied Research Programme.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

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