Having Pets May Not Improve the Well-Being of People with Serious Mental Illnesses – UPI.com

Trained therapy animals often enhance well-being for individuals diagnosed with mental illnesses, but they are selected and taught to be friendly, obedient and have a relaxed personality trait, researchers noted. Photo by Helena Sushitskaya/Pixabay

Trained therapy animals often improve the well-being of people diagnosed with mental illness, but they are selected and taught to be friendly, obedient and have a relaxed personality trait, the researchers noted. Photo by Helena Sushitskaya/Pixabay

It is commonly thought that having a pet, be it a dog, cat or bird, is good for the owner’s mental health.

A new study suggests that’s not the case, at least for people with severe mental illness and for pets who aren’t trained therapy animals. Pets can, however, be an important part of the social network for people with severe mental illness.

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Having pets was not significantly associated with well-being, depression, anxiety or loneliness scores for owners with a range of serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and psychosis, according to the study published recently in the journal Human-Animal Interactions.

This research followed a 2021 survey, in which researchers found a self-reported decline in mental health with animal ownership. This could be due to restrictions due to the pandemic and the difficulties of caring for the animal in isolation.

«In the absence of COVID-19 restrictions, one possible explanation for our current findings could be that the added liability of pet ownership could still exacerbate other potential stressors experienced by people living with severe mental illness. This includes the cost of food, veterinary bills and housing uncertainty,» lead author Dr Emily Shoesmith, a researcher at the University of York in the UK, said in a news release.

‘Our findings may also imply that animal ownership and the perceived strength of the human-animal bond are not sufficient to foster participants’ well-being, but we also need to consider the animal’s temperament and characteristics,’ he added.

For the study, the researchers surveyed 170 people in the UK. Among them were 81 people who owned at least one animal. Most felt a strong bond with their closest pet.

In the updated study, the researchers saw a marginal increase in well-being scores. They weren’t able to compare scores on anxiety and depression because those weren’t included in the 2021 study.

Shoesmith noted that trained therapy animals often improve the well-being of people diagnosed with mental illness, but are selected and taught to be friendly, obedient, and have a relaxed personality trait.

«It is critical for future research to further explore the mediating factors that influence the complex relationship between humans and animals to further our understanding of the more specific requirements of those living with severe mental illness who own animals,» said Dr. Elena Ratschen, an associate research professor in health services.

Aside from well-being and mental health scores, the study found nearly «peak levels» of attachment to animals from study participants. More than 95% of respondents reported that their pet has provided them with companionship, a source of consistency in their lives, and made them feel loved.

Pets can be a vital part of the social network for people diagnosed with severe mental illness, the authors noted.

Ratschen said future research should include more participants and compare a wider variety of animals.

«Unsurprisingly, cats and dogs were the most frequently reported pets owned by this sample, and it is consistent with numbers reported in previous mental health populations and the general population,» she said.

More information

The US National Institutes of Health has more on the health benefits of having pets.

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