Pets may not improve owners with severe mental illness: Study

Companion animals, including dogs, cats, fish and birds, do not significantly benefit emotional health of owners with severe mental illness.

London:  Companion animals — including dogs, cats, fish and birds — do not significantly benefit the emotional health of owners with severe mental illness, suggests a new study counteracting the commonly held view that animals are beneficial for owners’ mental health.

The study, published in the CABI journal Human-Animal Interactions, showed that owning an animal was not significantly associated with the well-being, depression, anxiety or loneliness scores for owners with a range of severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or psychosis.

A team of scientists from the University of York surveyed 170 UK participants. Of these, 81 owned at least one animal and most perceived there to be a strong human-animal bond with their closest companion animal.

They aimed to explore, in the first study of its kind, the connection between owning an animal and mental health in individuals living with severe mental illness and whether the perceived strength of the bond between owner and animal was associated with mental health and species of the animal owned.

“A possible explanation for our current findings could be that the added responsibility of animal ownership may still exacerbate other potential stressors experienced by people living with severe mental illness. This includes the cost of food, veterinary bills and uncertainty over housing,” Dr Emily Shoesmith, lead author and Research Fellow, at the varsity.

“Our findings may also imply that animal ownership and the perceived strength of the human-animal bond is not sufficient to benefit participants well-being, but we also need to consider the animal’s temperament and characteristics,” she added.

Dr Shoesmith said that this may explain why trained therapy animals, unlike companion animals, often enhance well-being for individuals diagnosed with mental health illnesses, as they are typically selected and taught to be friendly, obedient and have a relaxed personality trait.

“It is vital for future research to further explore the mediating factors influencing the complex relationship between humans and animals to further our knowledge of the more specific requirements of those living with severe mental illness who own animals,” said Dr Elena Ratschen, Reader and Human-Animal Interaction research theme lead.

Despite their findings, the researchers nevertheless found near “ceiling levels” of attachment to their animals. For instance, over 95 per cent reported that their animals provided them with companionship, a source of consistency in their life, and made them feel loved.

The researchers argue that these results may suggest that animal ownership offers similar benefits to those living with severe mental illness as those in the general population. As such, companion animals may be a vital part of the social network of people who have been diagnosed with a severe mental illness.

The scientists stress that their findings, together with prior research, suggest that the commonly held belief that animals are beneficial for well-being may not be entirely true for all members of all sub-populations in all contexts.

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