Apart from those unfortunate moments when your dog or cat leaves an unholy mess on the floor, or when they nefariously chew their way through a pillow, most would say that pets bring about an abundance of happiness – but what does science have to say on the subject? Although the effect of owning a pet on a person’s mental health has been looked into before, this is a decidedly new field of research, and individual papers only tell you so much.
Psychologists at the Universities of Liverpool, Manchester, and Southampton decided to perform a systematic review of several pre-existing studies, hoping to find out if pet ownership had a net positive or negative effect on those with mental health conditions. Much to our delight, they found that, overall, pets are beneficial in this regard.
The team notes that “traditional approaches to the self-management of long-term conditions” tend to focus on investigating and altering the psychological causes of changes in a person’s behavior. Although useful, they suggest that the wider resources within a person’s life – including the relationship they have with their pets – is currently being underestimated and under-researched at present.
In order to look into what the limited research into this association had come up with so far, the team carefully perused through 17 high-quality papers, all of which specifically looked into the management of diagnosable mental health conditions with regards to the ownership of pets. Both descriptive and quantitative data were extracted and analyzed by the team.
When gathering the data together, the team were on the lookout for “themes”, repeated trends or features of pet ownership. These can include “emotional work”, the sort that alleviates feelings of isolation or worry, or “practical work”, which can provide a literal distraction from a person’s symptoms.
The team found that studies generally highlighted both positive and negative aspects of pet ownership. In terms of the latter, the “practical and emotional burden of pet ownership”, as well as the “psychological impact that losing a pet has”, came up on several occasions.
In descriptive studies, these negatives “were largely over-shadowed by co-occurring positive impact of pets in these studies.” The results of the numerical, quantitative studies were more mixed, however, and some suggested pet ownership made no difference.
Overall, though, the benefits stood out.
Writing in the journal BMC Psychiatry, the authors note that pets were often found to provide a consistent source of companionship and calming support, particularly useful in a time of crisis. They did indeed provide good distractions, and were even considered to be important in the “maintenance of a positive identity”.
Did the type of pet made any difference?
“It wasn't possible to ascertain this from the articles included in our review, as most of the studies combined pets as one group,” lead author, Dr Helen Brooks, a psychologist at the University of Liverpool, told IFLScience.
“However, we did find that dogs were considered particularly useful in terms of encouraging exercise through having to walk a dog regularly, which was considered beneficial to mental health.”
Importantly, although pets generally bring psychological benefits to owners, the fact that many with diagnosed mental health conditions feel more excluded from society suggests that pet ownership should be looked into more seriously.
At this point, the precise nature of this association, as well as the exact extents to which certain mental health conditions are alleviated, remain ambiguous – something this research has highlighted.
Still, the signs are positive, which is why the team isn’t just calling for more research, but for changes in the way pets are incorporated into mental health treatment programs.