YORK, United Kingdom — Coming home to a furry friend after a long day can do a world of good for one’s outlook on life. However, new research out of the United Kingdom is serving as a reminder that when it comes to serious mental illness, even the cutest puppies and kittens are no replacement for more traditional interventions like therapy.
Scientists at the University of York report living with and having a close bond with a companion animal does not necessarily foster significant mental health improvements in those dealing with a serious mental illness. A survey put together by researchers reveals living with an animal (dog, cat, fish, or bird) does not improve well-being or reduce depression, anxiety, or feelings of loneliness for owners with serious mental illness (bipolar disorder, schizophrenia) in comparison to others living without an animal.
Study authors were actually following up on an earlier survey conducted in 2021 that focused on investigating aspects of animal ownership and mental health during COVID-19. All in all, they say their findings dispute the increasingly popular theory that animals are a sort of mental health and well-being panacea across all contexts.
A total of 170 U.K. adults with serious mental illness took part in the poll, with 81 reporting having at least one animal. Among that group, over 95 percent said their animals provide companionship, a source of consistency in their life, and made them feel loved.
Dogs and cats were the most frequently owned pets, and the vast majority of participants perceived the bond they shared with their animal to be very strong. In comparison to others with serious mental illness who did not have an animal, however, the team did not note any statistically significant improvements in mental health and feelings of loneliness.
The earlier survey from 2021, which used the same group of people, found that owning an animal was actually associated with a self-reported decline in mental health among people with serious mental illness. Study authors theorize this finding in particular may have been due to both pandemic restrictions and the challenges of looking after their animal in the context of the lockdown.
“It is now increasingly assumed that companion animals are beneficial for all owners’ mental health in most or all circumstances, but this may not be the case,” says Dr. Emily Shoesmith, from the University of York’s Department of Health Sciences, in a media release.
“The pandemic provided a unique opportunity in which to look more closely at this question, and we found that whilst many participants with serious mental illness reported that their animal was a ‘lifeline’ during this time, the benefits may have been outweighed by the additional stress and anxiety caused by caring for an animal in the lockdown context,” Shoesmith continues.
“These new data were collected after pandemic restrictions had been lifted, and although we found small improvements in terms of reported wellbeing outcomes since the previous survey, we did not find that animal ownership was significantly associated with enhanced wellbeing, depression, anxiety, or loneliness.”
Still, most respondents perceived having a strong human-animal bond with their closest companion animal, and even said their animal provided them with much-needed companionship and a source of constancy in life.
In summation, study authors point out that companion animals can still serve as a vital part of the social network of people who have been diagnosed with a severe mental illness. However, much more work is necessary to better understand the nuances of these human-animal relationships. For example, whether the type of animal makes a difference, as well as additional external factors that could cause extra stress.
“One 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,” concludes Dr. Elena Ratschen, from the University of York’s Department of Health Sciences.
“The findings suggest that the nature of human-animal interactions is complex. The bond between owners and animals was perceived to be high in this study and is undoubtedly very important in people’s lives.”
“It is not necessarily reasonable, however, to assume that it is a means to improve symptoms of serious mental illness or disperse feelings of loneliness in a highly disadvantaged population of people with these illnesses.”
The study is published in the journal Human-Animal Interactions.
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