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.