Looking after a pet can help distract patients with mental health conditions from distressing symptoms and enable them to gain acceptance, according to researchers.
The study, which aimed to explore the role of pets in the support and management of long-term mental health problems, noted that pets offered ‘emotional and social support’ to those who suffered from such conditions and provided security and stability to their everyday lives.
The qualitative research took place in the North West and South of England, and used semi-structured interviews with 54 participants, network diagrams that placed relationships in circles depending on importance and previous literature – both published and unpublished.
The paper, published in BMC Psychiatry, found that of the 25 participants who identified a pet as part of their mental health management community, 60% listed their pet in the inner circle of their network diagram.
A further 20% placed their pet in the second circle and 12% chose the third circle. Only 8% did not place a pet within the three circles.
The paper said: ‘It was often the case that where relationships with family and friends were seen to be good, animal-human relationships were perceived to be of secondary importance.
‘However, the majority of people reported either having difficult relationships with other network members including friends and family or had little or limited other network support in addition to their pets.’
The authors suggested that for these people, the animals seemed the provide security, physical proximity and consistency that was lacking from their other relationships.
They said: ‘Pets contributed, over time, to individuals developing routines that provided emotional and social support. This was set against a backdrop of pets also providing the ability to gain a sense of control inherent to caring for a pet, which was absent in relationships with other network members.
‘This seemed to enable a sense of security and routine to be developed in relationships with pets, which reinforced stable cognitions from the creation of certainty that they could turn to and rely on pets in times of need.’
The paper also found that pets provided distraction and disruption from distressing symptoms like hearing voices or suicidal thoughts, as well as giving them a sense of acceptance. Some participants said that being a responsible pet owner and undertaking the required tasks of such a role, improved how others perceived them.
Certain pet owners said that their animals encouraged physical activity, such as dog walking, and allowed them to engage socially with other pet owners.
Author of the paper Dr Helen Brooks said: ‘This review suggests that pets can provide benefits to those with mental health conditions. Pets provided acceptance without judgement, giving unconditional support, which they were often not receiving from other family or social relationships.’
Dr Brooks stressed the need for further research to test the extent of the relationships and the support that pets can provide for those with mental health conditions.
Fellow author Dr Kelly Rushton added: ‘We feel that pet ownership has a valuable contribution to mental health, so should be incorporated into individual care plans of patients.
‘This sort of intervention also offers an opportunity to involve patients in their own mental health service provision through open discussion of what works best for them.’
The authors concluded that pets play a unique and important role in managing mental health over time. They suggested that pets should be considered a main source of support and included in care models for the management of conditions impacting on mental health.
This study follows recent NHS Digital data, which revealed that there had been a significant increase in fit notes issued for mental and behavioural disorders.