Our pets bring us joy and comfort, and they sometimes even help us when we are ill. But while the usefulness of a companion animal in the case of physical conditions has been accepted and well-documented by the medical community, there is less research available on the role of pets in mental illness. A new study aims to fill this gap by investigating how pets affect their owners’ mental well-being.

[man holding dog]Share on Pinterest
New research suggests most people with mental health problems see pets as their main source of support.

Millions of Americans are affected by a serious mental illness every year. In fact, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States reportedly experience mental health problems in a given year.

Many of these people experience feelings of loneliness and isolation. Sometimes, being diagnosed with a long-term condition means losing one’s previous social status and connections with people.

These feelings have been documented in psychiatric literature and connected with a patient’s so-called ontological security. The term refers to a sense of order, continuity, and meaning in a person’s life, together with a positive outlook on the future.

New research examines the impact of having a pet on the sense of ontological security and well-being of people with mental health problems.

Researchers – led by D. Helen Brooks from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom – interviewed 54 participants who were in the care of community-based mental health services in Manchester and South Hampton, U.K.

Participants were at least 18 years old, and had all been diagnosed with severe mental illnesses.

The study consisted of qualitative, semi-structured interviews focussed on “ego” network mapping.

Interviews were conducted face-to-face at the participants’ home or an agreed local community facility, and they lasted between 20 and 90 minutes.

Researchers asked the participants to rate the importance of the members of their personal network, using a diagram of three concentric circles. Network members included friends, family, healthcare professionals, family, hobbies, places, activities, and objects.

Participants were asked the question, “Who or what do you think is most important to you in managing your mental health?” Then, they were asked to place the network members in the innermost circle if they considered them “most important,” the middle circle if the members were “important but not as important as the central circle,” and finally in the outer circle if the network members were “important but not as important as the two more central circles.”

The findings have been published in the open access journal BMC Psychiatry.

Of the interviewees, over 46 percent – 25 participants – placed a pet within the personal communities that help them manage their illness and everyday life.

Of these, the majority – 60 percent – placed their pet in the central, most important circle. Another 20 percent placed their pet in the second circle, and only 3 participants placed their pet in the third circle.

Patients reported various reasons why pets were so important to them. Some of them said they provided much-needed distraction from symptoms and upsetting experiences, such as hearing voices, suicidal thoughts, or rumination.

Pets also gave their owners a feeling of responsibility, which in turn made the owners feel respected by other members of society. Having a pet was seen as an effective way to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

Caring for a pet also gave owners a feeling of being in control, as well as a feeling of security and routine. This provided participants with a sense of ontological security, by generating a sense of order and continuity to their day-to-day activities.

Finally, the feelings of acceptance and unconditional support that pets gave their owners contributed to an overall sense of meaning.

The study includes some of the participants’ testimonials. Pet owners are quoted as saying:

“When I’m feeling really low, [pets] are wonderful because they won’t leave my side for 2 days.”

“[Pets] don’t look at the scars on your arms, or they don’t question things, and they don’t question where you’ve been.”

“You just want to sink into a pit and just sort of retreat from the entire world, the cats force me to still be involved with the world.”

“I’m not thinking of the voices, I’m just thinking of the birds singing.”

“When [the dog] comes and sits up beside you on a night, it’s different, you know, like, he needs me as much as I need him.”

The findings highlight the importance of pets for the self-management of mental illness and everyday life.

Authors note that while the value and utility of pets for people with physical disabilities has been acknowledged by the medical community, the equally valuable role of pets in mental well-being remains largely ignored by healthcare professionals.

This makes Brooks and team refer to the work of pets as “hidden.” However, the authors conclude, it seems that the contribution pets bring their owners is “unique.”

“Analysis of an individual’s support network suggests a unique contribution from pets that extends beyond the support and connections provided by familial, friendship and weak tie connections,” the researchers say.

Dr. Brooks emphasizes the unique role of pets in improving the well-being of people with mental illness, and she calls for more holistic and creative approaches to enhance physical and mental well-being.

Pets provided a unique form of validation through unconditional support, which they were often not receiving from other family or social relationships. Despite the identified benefits of pet ownership, pets were neither considered nor incorporated into the individual care plans for any of the people in our study. These insights provide the mental health community with possible areas to target intervention and potential ways in which to better involve people in their own mental health service provision through open discussion of what works best for them.”

Dr. Helen Brooks, lead author

Read about how children with pets have less stress.