Despite the commonly held assumption that companion animals are good for people's mental health, the evidence is mixed. Now, the first study of its kind to explore the connection between severe mental illness and pet ownership has found no significant benefit.
For the study, published yesterday in the journal Human-Animal Interactions, researchers from the University of York surveyed 170 people with severe mental illness (SMI) — mostly psychosis (48.8%) or bipolar disorder (34.7%) — to collect information related to mental health, loneliness, and the perceived strength of the human-animal bond in order to assess the relationship between owning an animal and mental health in this group.
The present study was a follow up to the team's previous survey of the same group in 2021, which had reported that for people with SMI, owning an animal "was significantly associated with a self-reported deterioration in mental health in a cohort of individuals living with SMI".
While this decline was possibly influenced by COVID-19 restrictions and the heightened associated difficulties of owning an animal, their findings counteracted the commonly held view that animals are beneficial for all owners' mental health.
In addition, other research by team members had shown that "animal ownership was associated with less deterioration in mental health within the general population during COVID-19 restrictions in the UK", suggesting that animal ownership may have mitigated some of the detrimental psychological effects of the pandemic response.
High Attachment Levels but No Emotional Benefit
Roughly half (n=81) of the participants owned at least one animal, including dogs, cats, fish, and birds, and most perceived there to be a strong bond with their closest companion animal. Indeed, the researchers found "near ceiling levels of attachment to their animals", with over 95% reporting that their animal provided them with companionship, a source of consistency in their life, and made them feel loved.
However, on regression analysis, owning an animal was not significantly associated with scores for wellbeing, depression, anxiety, or loneliness among owners with a range of SMIs; nor was the perceived strength of the human-animal bond significantly associated with wellbeing, depression, or anxiety scores. There was also no significant interaction with the animal species owned.
The team notes that nearly 70% of households in the UK owns an animal, and "the enduring relationship between humans and companion animals is well-established". Nevertheless, the commonly reported assumption that companion animals have a positive impact on health and wellbeing "may not be transferable to specific sub-populations in certain contexts".
In addition, they write: "Evidence within the general population has suggested that strong bonds with companion animals may predict mental health vulnerability in owners." However, there have been few investigations assessing this bond with companion animals for individuals with SMI.
Responsibility of Animal Ownership May Exacerbate Stress
Why did the study have such a contradictory finding? "In the absence of COVID-19 restrictions, 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 SMI," lead author Dr Emily Shoesmith, a research fellow in the Mental Health and Addiction Research Group at the University of York, said in a press release.
"Our findings may also imply that animal ownership and the perceived strength of the human-animal bond is not sufficient to benefit participants wellbeing, but we also need to consider the animal's temperament and characteristics," she added.
Trained therapy animals, unlike companion animals, do often enhance wellbeing for individuals diagnosed with mental health illnesses, Dr Shoesmith said. The difference, she explained, may be that therapy animals are typically selected and taught to be friendly, obedient, and have a relaxed personality.
In an interview with Medscape News UK, she explained: "As concerns related to animal ownership (eg, finance related issues for food, veterinary costs) may exacerbate existing feelings of distress or anxiety for people living with SMI, it would be beneficial for healthcare professionals working with this population to ask about an individual's contact with companion animals and the challenges and benefits associated with ownership, to further understand the individual's context."
With that information, the healthcare professional could "facilitate the development of additional targeted support approaches" for these patients.
"Many aspects of people's lives can benefit from having pets, although we must be mindful that everybody is different," commented a spokesperson for the Royal College of Psychiatrists. "In some cases, pets can give people a reason to exercise or socialise with others, which can have a positive impact on their mental health.
"However, it's important that anybody with a mental illness seeks professional support, and in the first instance they should contact their GP who will be able to refer them to a mental health specialist if necessary."
The study was supported by a grant from the Medical Research Council. The authors report no relevant financial relationships.
Human-Animal Interactions. Published online 14 July 2023. Full text