New research looking at pet ownership among people living with severe mental health conditions contradicts the commonly held belief that owning a pet benefits everyone’s mental health.
The worldwide companion animal health market reached $17.21 billion in 2021 and is expected to experience more growth. This is likely because of the stark increase in people relying on companion animals such as dogs or cats for physical and mental health.
While previous research suggests that owning a pet reduces depression, anxiety, loneliness, and isolation, many studies focused on the general population, not people with severe mental health conditions.
However, a study published in 2021 investigating the influence of pet ownership during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns found evidence that, yes, companion animals offer physical and emotional support. But caring for these animals comes with significant challenges, which could increase feelings of distress in some people.
Recently, scientists who conducted the 2021 research decided to look deeper into the links between animal ownership and mental health — this time, in people with severe mental illness. In addition, the team sought to determine whether the bond felt between owner and animal was associated with mental health benefits and if the species of the animal owned mattered.
The first-of-its-kind study was published in the CABI journal Human-Animal Interactions on July 14.
The scientists surveyed 170 people living with severe mental illness in the United Kingdom. The participants were part of the team’s previous 2021 cohort.
The survey measured mental health, loneliness, and each person’s perception of the bond they had with their pet. Of all participants, nearly 48% owned at least one pet, and most thought they had a strong bond with their companion animal.
However, the team found that owning an animal was not significantly associated with wellbeing, depression, anxiety, or loneliness scores in people living with severe mental illness. Moreover, the perceived strength of the human-animal bond was not significantly associated with the type of animal species owned or wellbeing, depression, and anxiety scores.
The study authors say that one possible explanation for the findings could be that the added responsibility of animal ownership may increase stress levels in people living with severe mental illness, essentially counteracting the potential mental health benefits of having a companion animal.
In addition, the animal’s demeanor and behavior might influence the mental health of the pet owner. For example, the study authors note that other research has found that disobedient animals cause more stress in their owners than obedient, friendly, or relaxed pets.
Still, therapy animals may be more beneficial for mental wellbeing because they are trained to accompany people with mental health conditions and are more likely to exhibit these positive traits.
The study’s authors suggest that the belief animals are beneficial for mental health may not be entirely true for all people. Therefore, they say future studies should examine the role of human-animal relationships in people with severe mental health conditions, including the animal-related challenges and support needs these individuals may face.