Companion Animals Help People with Mental Health Problems
A review of research analyzed the extent, nature, and quality of the evidence
Posted February 10, 2018
For many people, sharing their lives with a companion animal (aka pet) has positive benefits while for some it doesn't. My own take on these matters is that regardless of what the science says, if living with a nonhuman companion works for you, then do it.
I just learned of a very interesting and important study by the University of Liverpool's Helen Brooks and her colleagues called, "The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence" in which these researchers analyzed the extent, nature, and quality of the evidence from 17 international research English language papers. This detailed study is available online and is a fairly straightforward read. There also are direct quotations from participants that nicely summarize different sections of this research paper that focus on the pros and cons of choosing to live with another animal for emotional support. I'm providing some direct quotations because it's essential to understand precisely what the researchers did.
Concerning the methods they used, the researchers write, "Quantitative evidence relating to the benefits of pet ownership was mixed with included studies demonstrating positive, negative and neutral impacts of pet ownership. 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. The negative aspects of pet ownership were also highlighted, including the practical and emotional burden of pet ownership and the psychological impact that losing a pet has."
The two review questions on which they focused were: (1) "What is the nature, extent, and quality of the evidence demonstrating the role of pet ownership for those with mental health conditions, with or without comorbid physical health conditions? (2) What is currently known about the mechanisms underlying any impact?"
The results of this study are very interesting and important. The researchers write:
Of the 17 included studies, 15 reported positive aspects of pet ownership for people experiencing mental health problems [9, 27, 28, 29, 30, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 42] and 9 reported negative elements [9, 27, 32, 35, 36, 38, 39, 41, 42]. Neutral effects of pet ownership were reported in some of the included quantitative studies, where no difference in mental health outcomes, social contacts or loneliness were reported for pet owners compared to non-pet owners [29, 32, 35, 40]. Benefits were mostly demonstrated through qualitative data, and negative elements, which were highlighted, were largely over-shadowed by co-occurring positive impact of pets in these studies [9, 27, 32, 35, 36, 38, 42]. [The numbers refer to references that can be found in the paper.]
A number of different themes emerged from their analysis. Each is accompanied by quotations from the people involved. These included:
Emotional work - alleviating worry, providing comfort and mitigating against feelings of isolation and loneliness ("The dog approaches Karin when she’s crying and comforts her by lying next to her and licking away her tears. The dog hears her, and wherever he is in the house, he comes to her. We can’t always comfort her. Sometimes Karin has said, ‘It’s a good thing we have the dog, otherwise, no one would be able to comfort me” .)
Practical work - physical activity and symptom distraction ("But if I’m here and I’m having…having problems with voices and that, erm, it does help me in the sense, you know, I’m not thinking about the voices, I’m just thinking of when I hear the birds singing .")
Pets as conduits to social interaction and emotional nourishment ("That surprised me, you know, the amount of people that stop and talk to him, and that, yeah, it cheers me up with him. I haven’t got much in my life, but he’s quite good, yeah .")
Biographical work - identity, a sense of self-worth and existential meaning ("For Irene, taking care of her companion dog facilitated a change in her sense of self, from seeing herself as someone who “destroyed anything [she] loved” to seeing herself as a loving, nurturing protector .")
There also were some negative aspects of living with a companion. These included financial costs, unruly pets, and the guilt people felt for not being able to manage the animals successfully, and the animals being barriers to travel. One person wrote, "I was trying to care for 3 cats of my own that I loved [and] stray cats in the neighborhood I was feeding. I tried to spay the ones that appeared to be pregnant, and I was putting food out twice a day, and I was just feeling overwhelmed, just overwhelmed and more and more depressed, more a sense of failure, and finally, it just got worse and worse and worse ."
The authors' clearly lay out what they found and what they recommend for future studies:
Despite some inadequacies in the data, this review suggests that pets provide benefits to those with mental health conditions through the intensity of connectivity with their owners and the contribution they make to emotional support in times of crises together with their ability to help manage symptoms when they arise. Further rigorous research is required to test this relationship, incorporating outcomes that cover the range of roles pets may have in relation to mental health identified within this review. The research studies included in this review provide a point of debate that services and policy makers may wish to consider in the future.
If living with a companion animal works for you and the animal, then do it
As an outsider to this field of research, I found this summary of the studies to be very informative. The authors are not saying that living with a companion animal is a panacea for all people suffering from different mental health problems. However, the data they analyzed do point to many benefits for people choosing to do so. In addition, this study and others like it will generate questions that need to be given close attention in the area of pet-assisted therapy. These sorts of discussions are sorely needed so that people can understand the pros and the cons of living with a nonhuman because it's not always necessarily rosy for either or both of the parties.
I often get asked whether living with a dog or other companion animal is really beneficial. A recent study conducted in Sweden showed that living with a dog had beneficial effects especially for people living alone. However, sweeping headlines often make it seem like sharing one's life with a companion animal is always beneficial, and unless people read between the lines, it appears like choosing to live with a dog, for example, is a panacea for all sorts of situations and conditions. It isn't. And surely, the nonhuman has to be part of the equation, because her or his quality of life has to be taken into account. Choosing to live with a dog (or another animal) has to be a two-way affair in which both the human and the dog benefit from the relationship.
Sharing your home and heart with a companion animal is a huge responsibility that could be highly stressful for people who just don't have the time, energy, money, or knowledge to give the nonhuman the best life possible. The animal also can suffer because of this. I've known, as I imagine many others also have, people with good intentions who choose to live with a dog and then simply can't do what's needed for their nonhuman friend to have a high-quality life. These people then get stressed out because they can't give their dog what she or he needs. So for them, the choice is not a good one, despite their good intentions.
All in all, while available data show that there are, indeed, some health and social benefits for some people who choose to live with a dog or other companion animal, I choose to answer the question of whether living with a dog is good for certain people by clearly saying something like, "Living with a dog is a good idea only if it's good for you and the dog." The living situation must work for the animals themselves (for more discussion of this topic please see "Living With a Dog Is Good, If It's Good for You and the Dog").
My own take on these matters is that regardless of what the science says, if living with a nonhuman companion works for you and the animal, then do it. I look forward to studies that focus on all individuals, human and nonhuman, who are part of the ongoing social relationship. When it's a two-way affair, it's a win-win for all. However, far too often it's not. In many—far too many—situations, dogs want and need far more than they get from us. Let's be sure that in the future the myriad relationships we form with other animals are far more egalitarian.
Bekoff, Marc. 2017. Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us.
Bekoff, Marc. 2018. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Helen Louise Brooks, Kelly Rushton, Karina Lovell, Penny Bee, Lauren Walker, Laura Grant, Anne Rogers. The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence. BMC Psychiatry, 2018; 18 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s12888-018-1613-2