Science AMA Series: We are Helen Brooks and Kelly Rushton, part of a team of mental health researchers at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. We recently published a study exploring the role of companion animals in the self-management of serious mental health condition. AMA!

Abstract

Pet ownership has been shown to reduce stress, improve physical health, increase social interaction and reduce loneliness. A recent study (https://t.co/dBq8rIRCJm) funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) conducted by researchers from the University of Manchester and the University of Southampton (http://www.clahrc-wessex.nihr.ac.uk/) examined the role of pets within the personal communities of those living with a mental health condition. 54 interviews were conducted with participants, 25 of whom had a pet. The study demonstrates a range of roles attributed to pets and a strength and depth in the value of pets in the management of mental health problems. Pets were implicated in the management of mental health through the provision of secure and intimate relationships not available elsewhere. Given the consistency of presence and a close physical proximity, pets constituted an instantaneous source of calming, therapeutic benefit for their owners. Pets helped their owners manage feelings by distracting them from symptoms and upsetting experiences such as hearing voices and suicide ideation and provided a form of encouragement for activity. Pets helped their owners to manage felt stigma directly by providing acceptance without judgement. In this way, pets served to provide a unique form of validation through unconditional support, which was often not forthcoming from other network relationships. Participants described the various, nuanced ways that pets connected them to others in, and beyond, their personal networks or to the wider social environment. Participants described new relationships with network members or community organisations as a result of pet ownership, as well as enhanced ones with existing network members.

University of Manchester press release: http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/pets-offer-valuable-support-for-owners-with-mental-health-problems

Acknowledgements:

This is a summary of independent research funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)’s Programme Grants for Applied Research Programme (Grant Reference Number RP-PG-1210-12007) and the National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (NIHR CLAHRC) Wessex and Solent NHS Trust. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health.

Do the financial and overall care costs for the pets have any impact on the stress levels of the owner? Were all of the pet owners in the study able to provide and care for their pets?

On a personal note, I have witnessed positive mental health benefits concurrent with your study results in my own experiences with my pets.

Binnyfromthebins

Hi, thank you for your question. The participants included in the study did discuss the negative elements of pet ownership and these included, as you suggest, the costs of owning a pet (for more detail see here:https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-016-1111-3). They felt that the benefits of pet ownership on balance outweighed these negative aspects. There were also some people who were unable to own a pet for these reasons but had made links to other people with pets or local organisations (e.g. City Farm) and were able to benefit through these links.


Were there any particular pets that were better than others? Were dogs or cats better?

jimguru

Hi, thanks for your question. The people we spoke to did not value one type of pet over another though people varied in their individual preferences. People valued the ability to select a pet based on their own preferences, needs and requirements. For example, those who lived in flats which did not allow dogs were able to have birds or another type of pet. The consistent and proximate support provided by all pets were beneficial to the people we spoke to.


One very surprising effect of having a dog again was the improvement of my social life. Going outside alone is hard, and when I do, barely anyone even just greets me. When I'm out with the dog, people get chatty and react very friendly.

Even when he's not along, the dog is a safe, superficial-enough topic to talk about with others. Without a job, family, and the ability to do terribly much, it's a welcome relief to have something to share that's positive and relatable.

Did the participants in your study see similar effects?

BurningBrightly

That's a great point! Yes, they did. We did a similar study with people with long-term physical health conditions and both groups of participants raised how their pets improved existing relationships and forged new relationships with others. Often these were just with 'familiar strangers' in the community but were beneficial to the people we spoke to.


It appears the participants self-selected as pet owners, how do you know that the healthiest participants were not more likely to buy pets, as opposed to pets making their owners healthier?

shinypenny01

Great question! Our research did not allow us to assess the direct of this relationship. The aim of the study was to explore in an in-depth way the roles the pets played in the social networks associated with the management mental illness.


Do pets provide judgment free companionship or do we just project good qualities on to them ?

zagbag

Hi, that's a really interesting question and something we considered when analysing the findings. Participants felt very strongly that pets provided this judgement free companionship through the provision of secure and intimate relationships often not available elsewhere. It did seem that, as opposed to other people within their network, pets could be passive recipients of other 'required' characteristics which was also beneficial to the people we spoke to. There's more detail on this within the paper: https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-016-1111-3.


Every time I think about killing myself I am overcome with guilt from the idea of abandoning my two cats. Even if I cannot feed myself, I must get up to feed them. Does it seem that different pet types (dogs vs cats) are more effective in terms of therapeutic benefits?

dreavvver

Hi, thanks for your question. People in the study also spoke about the strength of their bond with their pet and the responsibility they felt for them. People did not value one type of pet over another though people varied in their individual preferences. People valued the ability to select a pet based on their own preferences, needs and requirements. For example, those who lived in flats which did not allow dogs were able to have birds or another type of pet. The consistent and proximate support provided by all pets were beneficial to the people we spoke to.


Another question: I was baffled once when I noticed my friends who emmigrated from the countryside are VERY cold towards animals. They couldn't think of cats as anything other than pests. Even relating to dogs they're more stoic and stern, not the kind of people to treat dogs like children. And they would certainly not think of having pigs or rabbits as pets!

How much the benefits of having pets are related to a specific cultural background? Do people who work with their pets (cowboys and their horses, hunters and their dogs) have a different relationship and different benefits?

nerak33

That's a fascinating question but not something our study addressed. Pets are unlikely to be useful for everyone so it would be important to know who they work best for and why and as you suggest culture is likely to be an important factor.


Growing up I had a tamagotchi and it really helped me get through a death in the family. Do you think this might have been a similar relationship to people who have pets? Could virtual pets be used as an aide in a similar way to pets?

randomwormgenerator

Hi, great question! I don't know a lot about the field of cyber pets though I am aware of research looking at the role of these in settings such as care homes that you might want to have a look at this: http://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/319015


Thank you for the AMA. The article and ama mention stress, depression, hearing voices, etc. Specifically, what kinds of mental illness were you considering? For example, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar? I am particularly interested in "thought insertion" and auditory hallucinations, thus my question.

You seem to hypothesize that the cause of benefit is the unconditional/intimate relationships people with their pets. What factors seem to contribute to or constitute these relationships? I imagine part of the intimacy may be related to care giving, physical contact, shared activities, etc. Does that sound correct, and what factors do you see as relevant to such relationships?

Do you think that certain kinds of non-human artifacts, e.g., robots or even software, could fill some of the same roles as pets, specifically, that relationships could be fostered so as to alleviate certain mental illness symptoms? How would you speculate this to work?

Ned_Gutters

Hi and thank you for you interesting comments. Participants were considered eligible for inclusion in the study if they were aged 18 or above, were under the care of community-based mental health services (or had been discharged within 6 months) and had received a diagnosis from a health professional of a severe mental illness (e.g. Schizophrenia or Bipolar disorder) See: https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-016-1111-3. People implicated pets in the management of the symptoms associated with these conditions including distraction from hallucinations.

Pets provided secure and intimate relationships not available elsewhere. Given the consistency of presence and a close physical proximity, pets constituted an instantaneous source of calming, therapeutic benefit for their owners. Participants in this study had more difficult relationships with others (human relationships) and experienced greater levels of stigma than those included in studies of chronic physical conditions. Pets helped their owners to manage this stigma directly by providing acceptance without judgement. In this way, pets served to provide a unique form of validation through unconditional support, which was often not forthcoming from other network relationships.

There is a developing literature on the use of cyber pets in settings such as care homes but I am not sure there is anything looking at mental health specifically.


Have you done research into how the death of companion animals affects the person's mental health?

Is there a difference between different companion animals and the effects on mental health? Such as pigs, cats, dogs and rabbits etc.

thatsconelover

Thank you for your question. Participants did speak to the negative aspects of pet ownership and these included as you suggest the death of companion animals. They felt that on balance though that the benefits of pet ownership outweighed these negative aspects.

The people we spoke to did not value one type of pet over another though people varied in their individual preferences. People valued the ability to select a pet based on their own preferences, needs and requirements. For example, those who lived in flats which did not allow dogs were able to have birds or another type of pet. The consistent and proximate support provided by all pets were beneficial to the people we spoke to.


When it comes to autism did you see any sort of improvement of symptoms with a service dog versus just a normal dog

juliusmax1st

Hi, thanks for your question. Our sample only included those with a diagnosis of serious mental illness and we looked specifically at the impact of pet ownership rather than service animals. There is a wider literature though on the role of Animal Assisted Therapy for people with autism.


As a small animal veterinarian, I sometimes have to deal with owners that have an unhealthy attachment to their pets. I believe that often this is rooted in the owner's mental health issues. Many times, these pets are old and chronically ill to the point that they are suffering immensely but the owner will not consider euthanasia and often can't afford the care the pet needs desperately. If credit is available, the owner will go into extreme debt to keep an old animal alive a few days longer. I struggle to help the pet while managing the owner's expectations. Do you have any suggestions for handling this situation? Are there resources for mental health assistance of which I should be aware other than grief counseling? Thank you.

basedinevidence

Hi and thank you for your comment. This was not something that participants raised in our study (although I know there is literature on this elsewhere) apart from a general sense of worry about the death of a companion animal in the future. I am not aware of resources for mental health assistance either unfortunately. I wonder if having discussions with people earlier on about how they might respond in these situations might help? What do you think?


Any information on the role of untrained "emotional support animals" compared to actual trained service animals?

adrianmakedonski

Our study focussed on the role of pets within the social networks of those managing serious mental illness. It would certainly be interesting to compare in the future the role of emotional support animals and trained service animals. Do you have an opinion on this?


Thanks for sharing your research findings. And congratulations! How did this research change or challenge you?

goldenlemur

As a pet owner myself, I could certainly identify with some of the benefits raised by participants but I was surprised by the range and depth of roles attributed to pets by the people we spoke to. We felt very lucky that people shared such personal experiences with us and are incredibly grateful to all the participants who took the time to be involved in the study.


I was going to college after having been diagnosed with schizophrenia and I had a cat, because my therapist had said what you're saying. I lived in campus housing, an apartment, which was covered through loans and grants. I put in a petition that the cat was a companion due to mental health issues. The Dean said if he allowed me a cat, he would have to allow everyone animals. I was kicked off campus, could not find a place to live during the semester or school and subsequently failed out of the university. Do you believe that animals are beneficial to both those with mental disorders and those that do not have them, or do you find that pets are even more advantageous for those with mental health problems?

the-end-universe

I'm sorry to hear that! The evidence suggests that pets are good for our health generally in terms of reducing stress, improving quality of life, enhancing physical health and increased social interaction. What our study indicates is that for those with a mental health condition, particularly those with poor relationships with friends and family, the relationship with their pets becomes even more important. The participants in our study often had their pets before they became unwell and took particular value in the fact that their pets could relied on in times of crisis as source of immediate comfort and support. This sense of enduring trust borne out of unconditional support was often not forthcoming from other relationships for the people we spoke to.


Really interesting.

Is there much work that the benefits might vary by personality? So people higher in openness or agreeableness might benefit more (if you had two people matched for depression severity, say)?

dl064

That's a great question and it would be really interesting to explore. This wasn't something that the current study looked at. Pets are certainly not going to be for everyone and it would be important to look into who they might work best for and why.


Hello! I have post chronic Lyme disease, Lyme arthritis, as well as borderline personality and a whole lot of anxiety! I can honestly say that even though there's times I still feel suicidal, it's not as much as before and I owe that all to my puppy. When she was maybe two months my mom found her by a dumpster and she would have multiple seizures a day. There were days me and her would just lay on my couch together and be sick and I'd be in so much pain, even if I couldn't get up to shower though, whenever she was having her seizures I'd be up and helping her, I didn't realize how much I had to give til I nursed her back to health. There are days though now that she is healthy where it's hard to take her for walks or play with her, so my question is, I know it's healthy for us, but is it always healthy for our pets?

Lunalovettemoon

That is a really interesting question, thank you for sharing! Pet safety wasn't an issue that came up in any of our research and people treated their animals incredibly well in often difficult circumstances. I agree as you suggest that it is always important to consider safety/health of animals in line with the homing of any animal to anyone, I would encourage careful consideration from both parties before taking on the responsibility of having a pet.


Good morning - this sounds like an interesting study. I do have a few quick questions:

(1) Did you study any couples to see the effect the pet had on two people in the same household? I'm wondering if the pet had more impact on one person over another, and if there is an explanation of any difference (i.e., one person not being close to the pet, different experiences of the people with the pet, etc.).

(2) Was there any review of a person who selected a pet, did not have an improvement in their condition, then selected another pet? That may show the importance of pet selection on the progress people make.

I apologize if these are mentioned in your report. I am not able to open the link to the study from this computer.

TexasScooter

Hi and thank you for your questions. See responses below:

1) We only looked at an individual diagnosed with a mental health condition who then identified the people, places, activities around them that they felt helped them to manage their condition.

2) The people we spoke to did not value one type of pet over another though people varied in their individual preferences as you suggest. People valued the ability to select a pet based on their own preferences, needs and requirements. For example, those who lived in flats which did not allow dogs were able to have birds or another type of pet.

Hope these responses help.


What do you think is more effective, a companion animal or companion human when it comes to mental health?

YourMeeMaw

That is a really interesting question! I think it is fair to say that for the people included in the current study (and previous work we have undertaken) where relationships with other humans were good, pets became more peripheral in terms of the support they provided. However, we know that social isolation is both a cause and effect of mental ill health and, as such, pets become increasingly important. People talked about the negative and positive aspects of these different types of companions and more detail can be found on this here: https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-016-1111-3


I have major depressive disorder and severe anxiety. Finally living on my own with my son, but he's severeally allergic to cats and dogs. Luckily my parents took in my dog. I find myself crying from time to time about it. I feel like I've abandon my dog. I haven't been over to my parents house in several weeks cause I hate to see my dog get happy and then the saddest look on her face when I leave. I've grown up with pets my whole life. But my health and my sons health come first. I feel perplexed.

Smashley2020

Thank you for your comment. There were also some people in the study who were unable to own a pet for personal reasons but had made links to other people with pets or local organisations (e.g. City Farm) and were able to benefit through these links.


Just wanted to say thanks for studying this. I suffer from severe fibromyalgia and I just had a stroke two months ago. I live with 3 cats and 1 dog, and they are invaluable. Suffering is an inherently lonely business and no one can be around me all the time. Animals offer a sense that someone is there, and they care at all times.

Sovonna

Thank you for sharing your experience. It certainly resonates with that of the people we included in our study too.


Does it mention what type of life long mental health conditions? I work with patients with learning disorders and mental health and some behavioral and I would not leave a pet alone with about half of those I've worked with. Some have a history of harming animals (even a person who actually appears to love animals), while others I have seen harming animals (such as on home visits, which I stopped immediately).

My question would be:

Who makes sure those pets are safe?

hedgeborncerebellum

Participants were considered eligible for inclusion in the study if they were aged 18 or above, were under the care of community-based mental health services (or had been discharged within 6 months) and had received a diagnosis from a health professional of a severe mental illness (e.g. Schizophrenia or Bipolar disorder) See: https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-016-1111-3.

Pet safety wasn't an issue that came up in any of our research and people treated their animals incredibly well in often difficult circumstances. I agree as you suggest that it is always important to consider safety of animals in line with the homing of any animal, I would encourage careful consideration and vetting from both parties before taking on the responsibility of having a pet.


Thank you for the work you're doing. I've seen the positive effects pets can have on loved ones suffering with mental health conditions. More studies need to be done and a push for a wider acceptance in society that properly trained support animals should be allowed to accompany owners much the same as guide and other assistance dogs do.

What are your thoughts on how support dogs/pets may be able to help sufferers of mental health conditions integrate better with society and/or workplaces?

mudmonkey27

Our study looked at pet ownership and did not include assistance animals. We know that service users and carers often feel distanced from health care services. Our research would suggest that taking more creative approaches to integration, including the use of pets, may be one way of addressing this because of the value, meaning and engagement that individuals have with their companion animals.


Hi there, understandable that animals help with the management of things like voices and SI but what about delusions? Did your research show any benefits towards relieving paranoia?

psychnurseguy

Hi and thank you for your question. Yes, the people in our study talked about how pets could be a distraction from delusions and hallucinations. In terms of paranoia this was a more indirect benefit. People talked about distancing themselves from friends and family because of their illness (including paranoia) but that it was not possible to do this with pets. In this way pets provided a secure and intimate relationship which was often not available elsewhere. Are there any additional benefits related to paranoia and delusions that you might add to these?


Thank you for doing this AMA. I have schizophrenia and PTSD. I feel my dog is very helpful to me, but I never made the move to talk to my therapist about her being a emotional support dog because I didn't think I was "bad enough". It doesn't seem to matter your "severity" as long as they help.

sapphopulp

Thank you for your comment. I agree that the benefits are important irrespective of condition or severity. The people we spoke to would have liked to discuss the role of their pets with their health professionals so they got to know them better as a person and so they could get reassurance that their pets would be cared for if they had to go into hospital.


Do different kinds of pets have different effects on mental health? For example, I imagine a cuddly dog or cat would help calm someone with anxiety, but what effect do birds and reptiles have and why?

HeroicBreadDad

The people we spoke to did not value one type of pet over another though people varied in their individual preferences. People valued the ability to select a pet based on their own preferences, needs and requirements. For example, those who lived in flats which did not allow dogs were able to have birds or another type of pet. The consistent and proximate support provided by all pets were beneficial to the people we spoke to.


What is the scientific reason people feel calmer and happier around animals?

riccobd

Pets were implicated in the management of mental health through the provision of secure and intimate relationships not available elsewhere. Given the consistency of presence and a close physical proximity, pets constituted an instantaneous source of calming, therapeutic benefit for their owners.

Participants in this study had more difficult relationships with others (human relationships) and experienced greater levels of stigma than those included in studies of chronic physical conditions. Pets helped their owners to manage this stigma directly by providing acceptance without judgement. In this way, pets served to provide a unique form of validation through unconditional support, which was often not forthcoming from other network relationships.


How annoying do you find all the roadworks in Manchester?

EasyBend

I come in on the train to avoid the road works :)


Does the stress caused by the death of a pet significantly impact the overall benefit?

Meriadocc

People did refer to the negative effect the death of a companion animal could have but they felt, on balance, that the benefits of pet ownership outweighed these negative aspects.


Can Therapy pets be beneficial for Panic Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

DJDef1le

Participants were considered eligible for inclusion in the study if they were aged 18 or above, were under the care of community-based mental health services (or had been discharged within 6 months) and had received a diagnosis from a health professional of a severe mental illness (e.g. Schizophrenia or Bipolar disorder) See: https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-016-1111-3. The study demonstrates a range of roles attributed to pets but also the depth of relationship that people have with their companion animals. Given the consistency of presence and a close physical proximity, pets constituted an instantaneous source of calming, therapeutic benefit for their owners. People in this study told us that relationships often broke down because friends and family did not understand their condition or that they did not feel motivated or able to socialise with others because of their condition. People talked about how their pets were sometimes the only thing that stayed constant in their lives and as you allude to they accepted them for who they were. Could this have relevance for the conditions you suggest?


Do you agree with me that, at some time in the future, companion animals will aid long term emotional and mental health resilience during space travel?

Also, I think a modified Chihuahua breed of a 'Spacedog', to coin a phrase, might be a treasured aid in the future, to you, what the most important qualities of an such Spacedog that you would suggest from your work - assuming the small form factor is necessary due the restrictions of space travel and otherwise biological and technological hurdles for such a Spacedog have been overcome suitably for said Spacedog?

lord_alphyn

What a fascinating question! People in our study didn't value particular animals or particular characteristics in animals. What was important to them was the consistency and close physical proximity of companion animals which meant they constituted an instantaneous source of calming, therapeutic benefit for their owners.


They really help a lot and will become your truest unconditional friends if you treat them right!

herhehejhrekjashsd

Yes, the unconditional support provided by pets was highly valued by the people included in the study.


What do you think should be done to limit this research being used to take advantage of landlords? Currently, I can claim any animal is an emotion support animal and have it rent and deposit free with no documentation. It makes people with real issues look very poorly when so many people take advantage of this.

Kakowthebeautiful

That wasn't something that came up in our research and we don't have formal provision for mental health therapy animals in the UK. Do you have figures on how much this is happening where you are? Would be interesting to know. Thank you.


I have two medically licensed companion cats (fancy paperwork from the VA and everything). Super awesome creatures when they aren't being little terrorists. No actual training whatsoever though. Apparently that isn't a thing.

theherofails

That's good to hear :).


What's the most interesting/exotic animal used for therapy?

0sepulcher0

We only looked at pet ownership and not trained therapy dogs. The most exotic pet we've had included in our research studies was a bearded dragon though!


Thank you for doing mental health research. As an allied health professional I can't support your work enough.

cdnkevin

Thank you for your comment.


Having personally seen the cataclysmic failure of the current system to assist close family members deal with the effects of mania and depression, what do you feel can be done to train and improve the ability of beleaguered NHS staff to exercise better care of current sufferers who can not or will not seek this sort of help for themselves?

There's an almost apathetic slant toward real, bonafide sufferers of mental health problems and most professionals don't seem to be able to offer any tangible assistance to those who really need it.

GazTheLegend

We know that service users and carers often feel distanced from health care services. Our research would suggest that taking more creative approaches to care planning discussions, including the use of pets, may be one way of addressing this because of the value, meaning and engagement that individuals have with their companion animals.


Mapping out the relations between family members (and how relationships affect an individual) is a central concern of psychology since Freud. What do is known of personality types of humans and pets or of kinds of relationships between humans and pets?

It seems no one goes to the shrink because his dog doesn't love him. But how do different dog/cat/parrot personalities and different human personalities interact?

nerak33

Please see the original paper for more details on the methods used. Our study aimed to develop an understanding of the meaning and roles credited to pet ownership and engagement by those with a diagnosis of mental illness within the wider context of recovery activities and the role of other members of individuals’ personal communities. Hope this helps.


Thanks for your insight!

the_mrs_clouse

Thank you for your comment.


I have suffered with mental health problems since i was a kid (now 31). As the years have gone by things have only got worse, until 4 years ago. I took in my mums dog after she moved house and he couldn't settle. He's an amazing little thing, he knows when I need cuddles and cheering up. Actually if he has his own way he would just have cuddles and kisses all day! I honestly believe that if it wasn't for him I would not be here today. He is literally saving my life. Do you think pets like these should be able to become emotional support pets - obvs dog in my case. Also I know that of you mention having a pet of any kind when applying for ESA and/or PIP (disability benefits in the UK), it will go against you and you could lose your award. Do you think this should be changed? FYI I live in Greater Manchester and would be happy to help with any further research :)

BullyCuddles

Thank you so much for your comment and it's great to hear about helpful your dog has been to you! People in our study also felt that their pets could sense when they needed comfort and acting accordingly. We only looked at the role of untrained companion animals and not trained service animals or emotional support animals. I wasn't aware about the PIP/ESA restrictions related to pet ownership, that must be a worry for people!


For me personally the most helpful thing about my cat is that she's annoying. In the morning she will pat me on the arm ceaselessly until I get up to feed her. It's annoying, but when I am really struggling getting out of bed I have this single-minded creature who will. not. stop. until I have gotten up

Before I had her I thought the positive effect would be emotional support of having something to hold and cuddle with, but after having her I realized it was more that I had something I loved that I had to care for.

Do you see differences in perceived benefits of companion animals between mental health conditions? Does the animal serve a different function for people with different conditions?

mireike

Thank you for your comment, that is really interesting. We only looked at people with a diagnosis of severe mental illness (e.g. Schizophrenia or Bipolar). It would certainly be interesting to compare these findings to other conditions as you suggest.


I have borderline personality disorder. I was curious about the implications of this study when it comes to service animals. I'm not sure how it works right now, but if you're blind is the cost, or some of the cost of a service animal covered by insurance or disability? If it's shown that pets are able to reduce the negative symptoms of a mental illness do you think we could see any sort of support for that from like an insurance standpoint?

I'm not stable enough to bring a living being into my life right now but it'd be nice to at some point.

Thephantoms

Hi and thank you for your comment. This study did not look at service animals and just the role of household pets. It would certainly be interesting to explore though, we don't have formal provision in the UK for mental health service animals. How does this compare to where you are?


Do you think it's likely to come common place for a pet to be prescribed for certain mental health issues ?

I have bi polar disorder and having a dog had proven a great way to make myself leave the house in tough times and a way of breaking the isolation which I tend to do. It also gets me out of my head and gives me a purpose.

My psychiatrist was against it but I can see how beneficial it has been to me and think it should be encouraged and not discouraged.

blablabla1984

We don't have this in the UK, what about where you are? Participants in our study too described the various, nuanced ways that pets connected them to others in, and beyond, their personal networks or to the wider social environment. Participants described new relationships with network members or community organisations as a result of pet ownership, as well as enhanced ones with existing network members.


Hi there! I'm sorry if this sounds redundant, but I'm a first-time dog owner and curious with the relationship of one's health and sleeping with their pets? Are there any changes/differences in sleep patterns, breathing, brain activity between those who sleep with pets, whether they share the same bed or are simply in the room as well, and those who simply do not share the space with pets/do not have one?

Somemexican99

Interesting question but outside the remit of our study unfortunately. I did come across the article recently which might be of interest: http://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(15)00674-6/fulltext


I've considered a companion animal because my mental health makes me feel very alone. Plus I look after myself better when I'm responsible for someone or somepet else.

I can't find anywhere that would help me to arrange this though. Just wanted to say I'm glad that this area is being researched, I'd love to find somewhere to support me with finding and training a companion animal.

Olessaty

Thank you for your comment and I wish you luck finding and training a companion animal.


Hey.

My online name is omenoftheundead, and I just started running a twitch stream to support those with mental disorders and disabilities as well as raise awareness through it. With the goal of encouraging people to paint, draw and play music to help mental health stability.

Does your research show any potential in animals with regular appearence on TV/ videos or streams?

Omenofdeath

That's a really interesting question and not one that was covered in our research. An area for future study perhaps!


Were trained pets preferred over any well-meaning "lay animal", or was there no benefit? (Such as a dog specifically trained to respond to autism or depression symptoms)

I've been half joking to seek animal training as a career, but if there's a viable reason to combine it with my psych background, that would be good to know!

Thanks for doing this AMA.

Morvick

We looked specifically at the role of untrained pets in the social networks implicated in the management of mental health conditions and did not look at therapy animals. There is a growing body of evidence in this regard though.


Should I get a service animal for my borderline personality disorder? I sometimes end up having panic attacks so intense that I black out and start beating myself against my conscious judgement, if that makes sense. I've given myself brain bleeds, concussions and fractures. Would it be safer to have one on the rare occasions this happens?

serotinal_carousels

Hi and thank you for your comments. We only looked at the role of pets in for the management of mental health conditions. Your question sounds like something to raise with a trained mental health professional.


Do you believe there are cases where someone with something like PTSD, severe anxiety, etc, would be stressed more by having regular therapy visits that more put your problems in your face then help solve them and would benefit more from simply having a companion animal who encourages the person to be less anxious about getting out?

pervyinthepark

Interesting question! This didn't come up specifically in our study but participants certainly had more difficult relationships with others (human relationships) and reported high levels of stigma. Pets helped their owners to manage this stigma directly by providing acceptance without judgement. In this way, pets served to provide a unique form of validation through unconditional support, which was often not forthcoming from other network relationships.


I can see that the unconditional support of the pet is the primary benefit. How important is the benefit of being of support to the animal, getting a positive mental health boost from fulfilling that responsibility? Also what is the most unusual support animal in your experience?

mrbobdobalino

Hi and thank you for your comment. Yes, as you suggest, reciprocity in relationships with companion animals was important to the people we spoke to and this was something that was often missing from relationships with other network members. The original paper contains more information about this element: https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-016-1111-3

The most unusual pet we had in our research studies was a bearded dragon!


Service dogs and emotional support dogs are seeing an increase in community involvement like never before. Do you think that studies like this will push widespread acceptance of bringing pets to public venues for all people, not just those with a disability, within our lifetime?

caitlynnoco

That's an interesting question and a difficult one to answer! Our study focussed on the role of pets in the self management of mental illness and mental health services specifically. We know that service users and carers often feel distanced from health care services. Our research would suggest that taking more creative approaches to mental health discussions, including the use of pets, may be one way of addressing this because of the value, meaning and engagement that individuals have with their companion animals.


Have you looked at the role of pets in the context of the presence of a supportive cohabiting partner? Are the benefits of pets to mental health the same for those who were single vs partnered? Does human companionship complement or substitute for the benefits of pets

hippopotamus82

Great question! We looked at the role of pets within the wider social networks implicated in the management of mental illness so partners were included in these networks. We found that pets didn't simply substitute the role of humans within social networks but played a unique role. Given the consistency of presence and a close physical proximity, pets constituted an instantaneous source of calming, therapeutic benefit for their owners. People in this study told us that relationships often broke down because friends and family did not understand their condition or that they did not feel motivated or able to socialise with others because of their condition. People talked about how their pets were sometimes the only thing that stayed constant in their lives and accepted them for who they were.


Are you looking for any volunteers in the Manchester area, I know someone with mental health issues and a dog in Manchester who has been on a very long wait list for counselling and would likely be interested in this type of thing.

Sherbertdonkey

Thank you for your comment, we're not at the moment. But if you keep your eye out on the University webpage opportunities will be advertised there.


Did you see differences in the effects of pet ownership among those with different mental health diagnoses (e.g. major depression, schizophrenia, OCD, PTSD)? What about differences between women and men?

SciviasKnows

Hi and thank you for your question. In our study, we did not identify any differences in terms of the roles attributed to pets in the management of mental health between men and women or between different diagnoses.


OMG This is just what I needed. I am getting certified in Animal Assisted Therapy. Can you speak to the helpfulness of that? What suggestions do you have for some one trying to make a living doing it?

fabricfreak

We looked specifically at the role of pets in the social networks implicated in the management of mental illness but there is a lot of literature on the impact of animal assisted therapy for a range of populations. This might be a good place to start: http://www.complementarytherapiesinmedicine.com/article/S0965-2299(13)00214-8/abstract


Have you done any studies into the way owning a reptile affects people? I have a bearded dragon myself and he generally keeps me quite busy and my mind off of any troubles

DatBeardie

We included people in our study with any types of pets and we had someone with a bearded dragon in a previous study :).


I'm not sure if this has been asked already, but how does this research help those who are looking to try and obtain a service animal? Is this just informative research?

Treklow

Whilst the value of therapy animals for mental health problems is well documented, the nature of the role pets play in the everyday management of serious mental illness was under explored. This study built on existing evidence to demonstrate the specific function pets are considered to have in the work associated with managing a mental health condition in everyday life.


For those with serious mental health conditions have there been any studies to follow up on how they deal with the loss/death of their companion animal?

feeljolly


What do you think are the consequences of this research: could it be a possible therapy option for those diagnosed with a mental illness?

Becca_242

The evidence suggests that pets are good for our health generally in terms of reducing stress, improving quality of life, enhancing physical health and increased social interaction. What our study indicates is that for those with a mental health condition, particularly those with poor relationships with friends and family, the relationship with their pets becomes even more important. We feel that these insights provide the mental health community with possible areas to target intervention and potential ways in which to better involve service users in service provision through the discussion of valued experiences.


What should a person do in a situation where a mentally ill person completely isolates themselves and does not accept any help?

oxford_comma1

Thank you for your comment. I think this is something you should be discussed with a trained mental health professional.


I'd also like to know about the different benefits that can be expected from different kinds of pets (cats vs dogs vs others).

cc405

The people we spoke to did not value one type of pet over another though people varied in their individual preferences. People valued the ability to select a pet based on their own preferences, needs and requirements. For example, those who lived in flats which did not allow dogs were able to have birds or another type of pet. The consistent and proximate support provided by all pets were beneficial to the people we spoke to.


What is the best species of animal for someone on the autistic spectrum to have as a companion?

YirtleTheTurtle

Our study involved people with a diagnosis of serious mental illness. What people told us was that they valued being able to select a companion animal based on their preferences and unique circumstances so speaking to the person concerned might be a good starting point.


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