By Dr. Becker
There's no limit to the love and companionship pets add to our lives, and this may be particularly true among people with long-term mental health conditions. For many who fall into this category, the ability to stay engaged in their day-to-day life is a key concern.
Other ongoing concerns reported by those experiencing mental health problems include losing previous connections and social status, an inability to continue on with activities once enjoyed and feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Mental illness may chip away at a person's sense of purpose and life meaning, especially if the person feels they're being judged or stigmatized. Breakdowns in relationships with family and friends are common, as are challenges in maintaining a daily routine.
A positive support network is invaluable in these situations, with human friends and family often viewed as the most important sources of such support.
New research suggests, however, that animals may fulfill an important support role, with pets bring emotional and mental benefits to their owners. The findings were so convincing that the researchers concluded:1
"Pets should be considered a main rather than a marginal source of support in the management of long-term mental health problems."
Pets Provide Valuable Social Support
Researchers from the University of Manchester interviewed 54 people with long-term mental health problems regarding the role of pets in their lives.
They were given a diagram with three concentric circles surrounding a square meant to represent themselves and asked to fill in their sources of support (with the most important sources filling in the closest circle and then radiating outward).
Nearly half of the participants included pets (dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, fish and more were part of the study) as part of their social network. Among them, 60 percent placed pets in the closest circle while 20 percent put them in the second closest.
The participants noted many benefits of pet ownership, including being a source of physical contact and comfort, as well as providing a way to channel emotional energy.
Many participants reported that their pets intuitively know when they're feeling unwell and act accordingly. One participant, an owner of two dogs and two cats who placed them in the closest circle, explained:2
"When I'm feeling really low they are wonderful because they won't leave my side for two days.
I will get up and I will let them out to the toilet and I will feed them but I am straight back in bed and I won't even get myself any food or water and then they'll just come straight back up and just stay with me until I'm ready to come out of it. They are used to it I suppose."
In some cases, the relationship between owners and their pets was so strong that it provided a distraction from negative feelings and symptoms, such as hearing voices among a person with schizophrenia.
The researchers suggested pets could provide a therapeutic role in distracting their owners from suicidal ideation, feelings of loneliness and other symptoms of mental illness. In other cases, pets provided a much-need source of levity and humor "and were often the only thing that could life participants' spirits," the researchers noted.
Pets Provide Unconditional Love, Validation
Also important, the participants noted their pets provided a source of unconditional love, who accepted them for who they were without judgement or resentment. Among those with mental illness, many of whom feel stigmatized even by friends and family, this was invaluable.
Many also noted the human-animal bond as being a reciprocal relationship, whereas human relationships in their lives were not regarded that way. Some even believed their pets to be struggling with similar symptoms (such as post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]), which helped alleviate feelings of isolation and alienation.
It's noteworthy, also, that many of the participants were unemployed and struggling with daily life. Pets had a positive effect here, too, as owners felt pride and validation about successfully caring for the pet, keeping him healthy and teaching him tricks.
Meanwhile, caring for pets helped the participants to develop routines and gain a sense of control over their lives. The researchers noted:3
"In this sense, the work of pets in personal communities provided participants with a seemingly deep and secure relationship, often not available elsewhere within the network or wider community.
This became increasingly important given the often-uncertain illness trajectory associated with severe mental illness including recovery and periods of crisis."
In summary, pets offered numerous practical and emotional benefits to owners struggling with mental health problems, including:
- Distraction and disruption from distressing symptoms
- Facilitating routine and exercise
- Managing the stigma associated with mental illness
- Providing a form of acceptance
In choosing a pet, it seemed the bond between the owner and the pet was more important than the type. Benefits were felt from owning pets of a variety of species, from fish and hamsters to cats and dogs.
One important caveat, some of the participants reported worry over what would happen to their pet if they became hospitalized or otherwise unable to care for him. A plan should be put in place for pets to be properly cared for if the owner is facing a period of crisis.