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Can Pets Help With Severe Schizophrenia?

Pets can help with depression and anxiety. Can they help with other conditions?

Key points

  • Emotional support animals are popular treatment options for people with mental illnesses.
  • Some studies have shown that cat and dog exposure early in life can negatively affect future mental health diagnoses.
  • Recent studies have shown otherwise, and pet ownership and therapy in both childhood and adulthood can positively affect schizophrenia patients.
Alvan Nee/Unsplash

I’m sure you’ve heard of pet therapy for people with disabilities. There’s an entire service for emotional support animals that are legally allowed in resident units that have a no-pet policy, and for air travel. People often get pets for coping with life stresses and their mental and emotional stability often.

But how do pets affect people with severe schizophrenia? The results might be more odd than you think. Apparently, serious diagnoses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have previously been associated with cats and dogs during critical times of childhood.

But a study done in 2019 published in Plos One detailed an investigation of dog and cat exposure in infancy and childhood before the age of 13 and showed a different result. The study tested 396 individuals with serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and compared them to 594 control participants who did not have a psychiatric diagnosis.

There was no significant association between having a dog or cat early in life and having bipolar disorder later on, yet the study found that exposure to a household dog or cat showed a decreased risk of having a diagnosis of schizophrenia later in life.

Another study published in 2022 also showed that having a dog or cat early in life showed a decrease in anxiety.

Dog-assisted therapy is also something that is typically thought to help people with depression and anxiety. How about patients with severe schizophrenia? A small-scale study sought to figure that out.

Twenty-one patients living with schizophrenia were selected from Spain and split into two groups. Twelve of the participants received a specialized trained therapy dog, while the others did not.

Patients with the intervention of the therapy dog showed better quality of life and a reduction in symptoms like hallucinations, delusions, and the absence of affect.

While that study was done in 2009, a more recent study published in 2016 showed similar results. This study assessed Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) for a six-month period in patients with chronic schizophrenia.

Also done in Spain, they measured for the same variables—postive and negative symptoms and quality of life. Fourteen of the participants received an AAT dog, while eight of them did not. The former group participated in AAT sessions twice a week, while the latter group simply had therapeutic treatment for the same frequency in traditional methods.

Both groups showed significant improvements in symptoms like hallucinations and delusions, but only the AAT group showed an increased improvement in negative symptoms, like lack of affect and lack of motivation. Additionally, cortisol levels were significantly reduced after the participants took part in the AAT therapy.

While these studies are small-scale, they show the promising potential of therapy dogs, and perhaps animals in general, for treating individuals with severe schizophrenia.

Of course, it may be difficult to care for a pet if you live with severe mental illness, but perhaps short, one-hour sessions a few times a week could still have a positive effect, as demonstrated by these studies.

Anyone who owns a dog understands that dogs can provide great emotional aid and relief, and we are thankful for our best friends.

Source: Alvan Nee/Unsplash

References

Yolken, R., Stallings, C., Origoni, A., Katsafanas, E., Sweeney, K., Squire, A., & Dickerson, F. (2019). Exposure to household pet cats and dogs in childhood and risk of subsequent diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. PloS one, 14(12), e0225320.

Calvo, P., Fortuny, J. R., Guzmán, S., Macías, C., Bowen, J., García, M. L., ... & Fatjó, J. (2016). Animal assisted therapy (AAT) program as a useful adjunct to conventional psychosocial rehabilitation for patients with schizophrenia: results of a small-scale randomized controlled trial. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 631.

Gadomski, A., Scribani, M. B., Tallman, N., Krupa, N., Jenkins, P., & Wissow, L. S. (2022). Impact of pet dog or cat exposure during childhood on mental illness during adolescence: A cohort study. BMC pediatrics, 22(1), 1-11.

Villalta-Gil, V., Roca, M., Gonzalez, N., Domenec, E., Cuca, Escanilla, A., Asensio, M. R., Esteban, M. E., Ochoa, S., & Haro, J. M. (2009). Dog-assisted therapy in the treatment of chronic schizophrenia inpatients. Anthrozoos, 22(2), 149+. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A207324086/AONE?u=ko_gov_wsibrl&sid=goog…

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