There is significant evidence owning a pet has benefits for general wellbeing, but new research has found that pets can also play an important role in the daily management of long-term mental illness.
When people living with serious mental illness were asked what helped them manage their condition, many put their pets right near the top of the list.
In the study, published in BMC Psychiatry, 60 per cent of participants placed their pets in their central circle of support when given a diagram to illustrate their support network, and a further 20 per cent put their pet in the second circle.
Through interviews with the participants, researcher Helen Brooks of the University of Manchester and her colleagues found that pets helped people manage their feelings “through distraction from symptoms and upsetting experiences” and acted as “a form of encouragement for activity”.
“When you just want to sink into a pit and just sort of retreat from the entire world, they force me, the cats force me to sort of still be involved with the world,” one participant said.
They also found that pets were of particular importance to people who had limited or difficult relationships with other people, which Janette Young from the University of South Australia said was more common among people with mental illness.
“We think that the way that pets operate is that they add to our relationship network and we know that the strengths of relationships makes a difference to people’s wellbeing,” Dr Young told the ABC.
“Often when people have mental health issues they will have relatively fewer positive relationships and more negative relationships in their networks.”
One participant said: “I think it’s hard really when you haven’t had mental illness to know what the actual experience is for someone who has had the experience. There’s like a chasm, deep chasm between us — a growing canyon.”
But Dr Young said human-to-non-human relationships tended to be far less complicated than those with other people.
“Pets tend to be a positive relationship … at a really basic level, we choose to have pets in a way that we don’t choose to have parents and brothers, so there’s an element of choice in being a pet custodian that is substantially different from the way human relationships happen,” she said.
One study participant said: “They [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.”
Research should not be dismissed as trivial
Dr Brooks also noted that within the group of study participants pets were “unanimously neither considered nor incorporated into individual mental health care plans”, but said they should be.
Dr Young echoed this call, saying the study demonstrated why research into the health benefits of pets was important.
“We actually haven’t been taking this issue of pets seriously, and that’s actually something that’s picked up in this research here,” she said.
Dr Young said similar research had often been dismissed as trivial.
“I’ve had people ask, ‘is that serious research’? But I think pets are amazing in that in my field, health promoters spend a lot of time telling people what they should be doing and people ignore them,” she said.
“Pets are, it seems to be, this amazing untapped and unrecognised resource — and you don’t have to tell people to have pets, you have them anyway.
“Understanding how this human-to-non-human stuff works, it’s like this little gold mine that we’re not recognising in terms of our welfare and our wellbeing.”
‘It’s not a thing, it’s another being’
One participant said caring for their dog gave them the sense of a consistent daily routine.
“I just try and make sure that I walk him, and that, in the mornings … but sometimes I can’t be bothered to do that, but then I think… I think about, you know, that it’s not fair if he doesn’t go,” they said.
Dr Young said this was an important benefit to owning a pet.
“A pet is an animal that we know and that we have an individual relationship, so it’s not a thing, it’s another being,” she said.
“Most people that have those kind of relationships care about the welfare of the other being.”
But she said more research was needed into bridging the gap between human and animal wellbeing, particularly among people those who struggled to take care of themselves.
“If someone is quite ill and unwell, physically or mentally, and struggling to care for themselves, then obviously that puts the animal that is dependent on them at risk,” Dr Young said.
“Part of thinking about this in a more sophisticated way includes very much that business about caring for the welfare of the animal … and how do we manage both, so we don’t put animals at risk.”