How Companion Animals Support the Mentally Ill

February 19, 2018
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM

Dr. Pendergrass received her DVM degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory Universitys Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner ofJPen Communications, a medical communications company.

The general benefits of pet ownership, including reduced stress and improved quality of life, are well known. What is less well known is how pet ownership benefits people with mental illness.

Traditionally, self-management of mental illness has focused on psychological strategies to change behaviors and manage symptoms. This approach, though, often does not incorporate social support mechanisms within a person’s community.

Previous studies have suggested companion animals’ importance in the social network of people with mental illness. Yet, overall, “the potential benefits that owning a pet might confer specifically to mental health has received relatively little attention,” wrote the authors of a recent BMC Psychiatry review paper that explored how companion animals provide support to people with mental illness.

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An extensive electronic database search for studies examining the relationship between pet ownership and mental illness yielded 17 qualitative and quantitative studies for further analysis. The data were synthesized into 3 “work” themes that a social network—in this case, companion animals—performs to support a person with mental illness:

  • Emotional: companionship
  • Practical: assistance with daily activities
  • Biographical: fostering a positive sense of self

Themes

Emotional

Pets provide many emotional benefits for people with mental illness, including emotional stability, consistent affection, and unconditional love and support. One owner remarked, “My dog offers comfort in a different way to how I do, more unconditional…the dog doesn’t ask why or what’s happened.”

Pets can also reduce feelings of isolation, helping “you feel like you’re like everyone else,” another pet owner stated.

Practical

Routine pet care provides a positive focus on activity, which lessens the impact of mental illness’ negative symptoms. Regarding dog care, one pet owner said, “The physical thing of having to brush her and take her out and feed her…it interrupts your thought process a lot of the time.”

Pets can also distract from upsetting experiences and memories. As one pet owner stated, “…If I’m having problems with voices…I’m not thinking about the voices, I’m just thinking of when I hear the birds singing.”

Other forms of practical support that pets provide include facilitating social interactions and increasing exercise.

Biographical

Pets provide a sense of purpose and meaning, a positive sense of self, and a counterbalance to the social isolation of mental illness. One pet owner remarked that “my best quality is that I love animals and I take care of animals.” Interestingly, one study suggested that pets can represent an abused childhood and that caring for the pet symbolizes caring for that inner, abused child.

Negative Aspects of Pet Ownership

Not all aspects of pet ownership are positive for people with mental illness. For those on a tight budget, for example, “You’re sitting there, having to cut back and scrape the bottom of the barrel to make sure they’re looked after,” one pet owner said. In addition, pets can be unruly or even a barrier to achieving goals.

A pet’s death could be negative, but studies reported upsides to pet loss, such as joy in remembering happy memories and an ability to understand other life challenges.

Bringing It Together

The benefits described in this review paper were similar to those for pet ownership in the general population. However, these benefits were reported primarily in qualitative studies. More quantitative data on the relationship between pet ownership and mental health will be needed, the authors wrote, to make macro-level policy changes that will incorporate pet care into other forms of social support for people with mental illness.

Dr. Pendergrass received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company.