Can pets provide support for people living with mental health problems?
There is increasing recognition for the role that companion animals might play in helping people to manage long term mental health concerns. In a study of 3465 prospective pet adopters77
A recent systematic review of the literature proposed a number of themes explaining the potential roles of pets in supporting human mental health78. Pets may…
In a recent study of individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, researchers reported that their pets provide opportunities for community engagement, social interaction, and participation in meaningful activities and may aid in the development of coping skills and secure attachments79.
Social Support and Reduced Stress
Chronic stress increases the body’s release of the stress hormone, cortisol, which in turn suppresses immune function. Social support can act as a buffer against the stresses of everyday life80 and it has been shown that people who share their homes with pets have healthier physiologic responses to stress, including lower baseline heart rate and blood pressure, and demonstrate less cardiovascular reactivity to, and faster recovery from, mild stressors81,82.
The availability of social support has a profound effect on the physical and psychological well-being of people, and non-pet owners are twice as likely to frequently feel lonely than pet owners83. People who own pets also report having fewer feelings of seclusion84.
In a 1980 study of individuals who had survived heart attacks, there was a significant positive association between having pets and one-year survival after hospitalization. The authors concluded that enhanced survival may be due, in part, to the buffering effect of social support and companionship that pets can provide31.
Depression is the most common psychological disorder in Western society and a major cause of morbidity worldwide85.
Cat owners report fewer bad moods84, and have been found to possess better psychological health than those who do not have pets86. This may be, in part, because when cat owners are feeling depressed, they initiate more interaction with their cats, and the cats engage in more affectionate behavior toward their depressed owners87.
In a study of men infected with HIV, those with AIDS who had pets reported less depression, especially if they had less support from other sources88.
Serious Mental Illness
For adults suffering from serious mental illness (schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, or affective psychosis), pets can play an important role in their recovery. Social isolation and loneliness often accompany serious mental illness, and pets provide opportunities to interact and feel known and understood. In some cases, pets may even provide an avenue to reconnect with other people, and can enhance feelings of self-efficacy and self-worth89.