Every year, the Canadian Mental Health Association hosts Mental Health Week to support those diagnosed and future research into mental illnesses.
For the month of May I am going to post every Friday on a mental health topic. Hope you enjoy this week’s!
Throughout the internet, there are plenty of articles tout that pets are an excellent addition to our lives and offer positive benefits for those who have a mental illness. There is a determined link between pet ownership and significant health benefits – both physically and mentally. There have been many studies supporting human-animal interactions for health benefits, but fewer regarding the benefits of companion animals despite that close to 50% of the US has a dog. Some of the ways dogs are beneficial is increasing physical exercise through walking, a decrease in loneliness, and an increase in social stability according to one review. Other research has claimed there is no positive benefit or even a negative correlation to owning a pet.
As the pandemic continues to keep Canada indoors, there is an increasing number of reports of people wanting to adopt a pet. Even with the protests to break quarantine getting louder, the US has also seen the same surge in people seeking a cuddly companion. The current pandemic has meant we’re working under more stressful, heinous conditions in the workforce than ever before. Even if you’re not working on the front lines, the overwhelming everyday news of COVID-19 has many people experiencing depression and anxiety. Does that mean you should open your home to a pet, though?
If you’re getting the urge to welcome a new friend into your life, please read ahead to see if it’s genuinely beneficial for you. You may be surprised by what recent studies have shown!
After a long day of work, it’s a fantastic feeling to have your buddy wagging his tail because they’re excited that you’re home. For frontline workers, you may be leaning on your pet for more comfort than ever, but if you’re seeking to foster a dog while you handle the front lines, this 2020 study doesn’t think it’s a wise idea. Up to 84% of frontline workers, like police officers or paramedics, experience at least one traumatic event due to the nature of their careers; in contrast, only 70% of the average population experiences at least one.
The purpose of “The Relationship between Dog Ownership, Psychopathological Symptoms and Health-Benefitting Factors in Occupations at Risk for Traumatization” by (Hennessen et al. 2020) was to replicate the same benefits of dog ownership, assumed by the general public, in volunteers that worked in a high-stress environment. The study consisted of “individuals in high-risk occupations with many working shifts and overtime” (Hennessen et al., 2020). It was assumed [hypothesis] that as frontline workers, they would benefit from the companion of a dog. The researchers focused on two aspects of human-animal interaction between non-dog owners and dog owners, observed health benefits and human attachment level to the animal.
The findings were completely opposite to what the researchers had hypothesized. Volunteers in the study didn’t report any more health benefits to pet ownership than non-dog owners. The statistical data showed a link between a strong attachment to the dog and a higher display of mental illness symptoms, like anxiety and depression. A reason behind this may be the increased stress pet ownership can have on someone. Aspects like keeping food in their bowl, making sure their exercise requirements are met, gives some people more stress than not.
It depends on the individual, though, the authors reiterated, and many can move past traumatic experiences without experiencing any symptoms of mental illness. The 2020 study also considers the compatibility between dog and owner in receiving the most out of pet ownership. Mixing a high-energy dog with a person who wants to have a nap on the couch when they get home from work isn’t a great match. Before looking into getting a pet, consider what you want out of pet ownership before moving forward.
Other studies are supporting the use of pets as part of treatment for those suffering from severe mental illness, despite the 2020 results. If the pandemic has you feeling anxious or more lonely as you’re couped up, a pet may help deal with those emotions.
Pets have been found to aid in those diagnosed with severe mental illness (such as schizophrenia) and assist with treatment. Many with mental illness deal with periods of extreme loneliness and despair, and those within the study stated that they found the pet to be a central connection to life. To quote Brooks et al. (2019), “relationships with pets were free from the obligations and complexities associated with other types of network members and provided an extension and reinforcement to an individual’s sense of self which militated against the negative experiences associated with mental illness.” As I mentioned before, waking up to a pet happy to see you, and providing physical attachment helps if you’re experiencing depression symptoms from being cooped inside during COVID-19.
A review found similar results in studies identical to Brooks et al. (2019), focusing on children and teenagers with mental illness. Through the analysis of 7 studies, the review found that children attending therapy and had a companion dog showed better “secondary factors” (2019) such as attention-span and reception to therapy methods. This was found in addition to benefits to the primary symptoms of the children and their mental illness.
Overall, the initial study and review both highlight the need for further studies on the actual benefits we receive from interacting with companion animals. Current research, as presented, has found there are subtle links to alleviating the symptoms of mental illness with a combination of traditional therapy and self coping mechanisms.
It’s always important to consider all aspects of your habits and schedule before bringing your new friend home. Even if you were considering taking a pet home before COVID-19 hit. Consider the stress levels you usually experience, and whether the additional stress of becoming a pet owner would do more harm than good to your mental health according to (Hennemann et al. 2020). Lifestyle compatibility is also key to having positive pet ownership – no one benefits if you want to relax when your dog wants a walk!
For those new to experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, and anyone already diagnosed, a pet still may be beneficial for you. Physical exercise associated with walking your dog has repeatedly shown oxytocin increases in empirical studies, and the companionship you’ll receive sets of loneliness experienced during this pandemic. That’s the same feel-good hormone runners always tout about getting after a run.
Mr. Crowley has really benefitted my anxiety and OCD in the 6 months I’ve owned him. Not only do both of us benefit from having a rigorous schedule, but he’s also a clingy dog that doesn’t let me feel lonely anymore. My anxiety can cause a lot of noise in my head that repeats unwanted thoughts and having Crowley does add the stability I need to get through some days. Sometimes he needs to be in my face whining for a walk to get myself out of bed, but I’m grateful to have them on those days I’d like to hide from the world.