Whether it’s a therapy dog visiting residents of a nursing home or a service dog assisting a disabled veteran, canine companions can vastly improve a person’s quality of life. Thankfully, society is increasingly recognizing the benefits pets can provide for our mental health. But what about the function of pets for people facing mental health conditions? Does living with a dog or other pet help these individuals, or present an additional challenge?
Recent research published in the journal BMC Psychiatry investigated the pros and cons of living with a companion animal for people managing a mental health condition. Dr. Helen Brooks and her colleagues looked at 17 previously published English-language studies that examined this same question. The researchers focused on positive and negative impacts of pet ownership, particularly during moments of crisis.
Out of the 17 studies researched, 15 contained positive elements of pet ownership for those with mental health challenges. Some of these included easing emotional distress — such as relieving worry and providing comfort — and lessening feelings of loneliness by providing companionship and acting as a link to social interaction with other people. When you take a walk in the park with a dog, he acts as a magnet that attracts conversation with others.
There were also practical benefits to having a dog. A person may be more active while caring for a pet and distracted from the symptoms of his or her condition. While thinking about their pet’s needs, people were less absorbed by their own issues. Finally, the pets gave their owners a sense of identity and self-worth. The owners’ lives had greater meaning because they were responsible for another living being.
Nine of the studies included in the analysis reported negative elements of pet ownership. These included the practical and emotional burdens of taking care of a pet, and also the psychological effect the death of a dog can have on an individual.
Another potential negative impact was the financial burden of taking care of a pet’s needs. Pets that exhibit behavior problems can cause stress and lead the owner to feel guilty if he or she is unable to successfully manage the issue. Pet ownership can also make it more difficult for a person to travel. However, all these negative aspects were largely overshadowed by the benefits these same pets provided their owners.
The researchers concluded that overall, pets offer a tremendous amount of comfort to people living with mental health challenges. They provide an intense connection with their owners and contribute important emotional support, particularly in times of crisis. Finally, they help people manage the symptoms of their condition. Pet ownership is not a magical cure-all, but it can be advantageous for those who choose to take on the responsibility. It seems that any pet, not just psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals, can boost well-being.
Further study on this topic is important for the areas of pet-assisted therapy and government policy involving support and service animals. It’s also important for society to see the true value pets can have for this group of people. The more we know about the pros and cons of pet ownership for those living with mental health challenges, the more informed those individuals can be when they’re trying to decide whether to bring a pet into their lives. The welfare of the animal and of the owner should factor into anyone’s decision to get a pet.