Over the last decade, several studies have shed light on our relationships with animals and their benefit to our mental wellbeing.
Easing worry, providing comfort, reducing sense of isolation and loneliness
Pets “provide unique emotional support because of their ability to respond to their owners intuitively, especially in times of crisis” and when they were feeling most isolated and alone.
Indeed, research showed that people often confided in their pets when unable to do so with other people. They felt safe to open up without being judged.
Physical activity and symptom distraction
Dog ownership in particular was associated with physical activity. Pets also appeared to help in a very practical sense, distracting and disrupting owners’ focus on unwanted symptoms or upsetting experiences (including panic attacks, hearing voices, and suicidal thoughts).
The presence of the pet was often associated with lessening symptoms by:
Introducing humor into the situation
Grounding the situation
Providing the owner with the opportunity to engage in caring activities: brushing, stroking, feeding, etc.
Individuals reported requiring less medication while feeling more positive and an increased sense of self-efficacy.
Conduits to social interaction and emotional nourishment
The presence of animals can lead to an increase in the quality and quantity of social interactions.
Several studies reported pets increased interactions with family, friends, and the local community. They cited several reasons including increased confidence in engaging with others (including in more difficult conversations) while the pet was present and the motivation to venture outside.
Sense of self-worth, identity, and existential meaning
Two of the studies in the review suggested that having pets led to an increased sense of meaning in tasks and participants feeling better about themselves as individuals.
Participants reported that they felt a heightened sense of identity and self from having to care for and protect their pet.
The review, however, added a note of caution. There can be downsides to pet ownership and the management of mental health disorders. Challenges for pet owners include:
The inevitable death of the pet
Potential housing issues
Implications of unruly pet behavior
They summarize by saying that pets benefit people with mental health conditions “through the intensity of connectivity with their owners and the contribution they make to emotional support in times of crises together with their ability to help manage symptoms when they arise”.