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It's Time to Take Pets Seriously as Mental Illness Support, Say Scientists

Puppy therapy is real.

FIONA MACDONALD
13 DEC 2016
 

Pets can provide incredible value to our lives, but a new study suggests that it's time doctors and mental health services started considering them more seriously as a source of mental health support.

 

The research shows that not only are pets great for our general wellbeing, they can also greatly help people manage long-term mental illness - a benefit that's been overlooked by doctors in the past.

"Pets should be considered a main rather than a marginal source of support in the management of long-term mental health problems," the researchers conclude in BMC Psychiatry.

Most of us are well aware that pets can make us feel less lonely, and a growing body of research has shown how useful animals can be for people with autism.

But although there are several organisations working with emotional support dogs, mainstream psychiatry has largely ignored the idea, with very few peer-reviewed studies conducted on the benefits of pets in mental illness treatment.

To change that, the researchers asked 54 participants who had been diagnosed with long-term serious mental health problems, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, to rate which aspects of their life helped them manage their condition.

Out of the small group, 60 percent of participants put pets up the top of the list, in the important 'first circle' of support. A further 20 percent put their pet in the second circle.

 

This is a very small and early study, so the research needs to be replicated and extended before we can read too much into the results.

But it's a preliminary finding that echoes what many researchers have heard from patients over the years - that pets are an important part of their coping strategy. 

Additional interviews with the participants revealed that pets helped people manage their feelings "through distraction from symptoms and upsetting experiences" and acted as "a form of encouragement for activity".

"When you just want to sink into a pit and just sort of retreat from the entire world, they force me, the cats force me to sort of still be involved with the world," one participant who owns two cats explained.

Another talked about how walking his dog each morning forced him to get out of the house and into a daily routine.

It's too early to say for sure exactly how pets are helping people - the research is still in its infancy - but the researchers hypothesise that it helps people feel less isolated, especially when they struggle to relate to the rest of the world. 

"The people we spoke to through the course of this study felt their pet played a range of positive roles such as helping them to manage stigma associated with their mental health by providing acceptance without judgement," said lead researcher Helen Brooks from the University of Manchester.

"Pets were also considered particularly useful during times of crisis. In this way, pets provided a unique form of validation through unconditional support, which they were often not receiving from other family or social relationships."

One participant described a "growing canyon" separating her from other humans without mental health problem. Another added: "[Pets] don't look at the scars on your arms, or they don't question things, and they don't question where you've been."

While a lot more research needs to be done, this study is a much-needed first step - the team notes that none of the participants in their study had ever had pets discussed as part of their medical health treatment plans. 

And other researchers think it's time we started properly considering animals in mental health care, too.

"We actually haven't been taking this issue of pets seriously, and that's actually something that's picked up in this research here," health science director Janette Young from the University of South Australia, who wasn't involved in the research, told ABC News.

"I've had people ask, 'is that serious research?' But I think pets are amazing ... Pets are, it seems to be, this amazing untapped and unrecognised resource."

The team now wants to look further into the relationship between those struggling with mental health problems and their pets, and investigate what kind of contact with animals is most beneficial.

This also involves making sure the needs of pets are considered too - it's crucial that anyone thinking about investing in a pet ensures that they have the capacity to take care of them for their entire lifespan. 

"Part of thinking about this in a more sophisticated way includes very much that business about caring for the welfare of the animal," said Young, "and how do we manage both, so we don't put animals at risk."

There's a long way to go before we're being prescribed puppy therapy, but at least researchers are finally starting to take the idea seriously.

The research has been published in BMC Psychiatry. 

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