Clive is a Goldendoodle who is the Assistance Dog for Murray, a 20 year old young man with autism. Murray was just 7 years old when Irish Guide Dogs supplied him with Clive – so the dog is now thirteen years of age. While Clive officially retired three years ago, he is still a key part of Murray’s life: he has been a central emotional support pillar for as long as Murray can remember.
There is increasing recognition by scientists of the beneficial effects of pets in people’s lives. They can be particularly helpful for people with mental health issues. A recent study carried out a systematic review of seventeen research papers on the benefits of owning pets..
Globally, mental health issues are the leading cause of disability in the human race, and significant resources are needed to help people whose lives are made more difficult by this challenge.
The most common tool to help affected people has traditionally been the use of psychological techniques to help people to adapt their behaviour, but it’s often still not easy for people to assimilate in smooth ways with their local environment and social communities. This is where pets have a strong role to play. As well as reducing stress and improving people’s quality of life, pets can be helpful promoters of social and community interactions for people who may be especially challenged in these areas.
The importance of pets is now recognised so clearly that the new thinking is that pets should be included when a person’s social circle is being analysed and discussed.
Seventeen studies were included in the review, and while fifteen of these reported positive aspects of pet ownership for people experiencing mental health problems, nine of the studies did report negative elements. This mix of impacts reflects well on the objectivity of the studies, but it’s important to note that the negative points were largely over-shadowed by the positive impact of pets
The review broke down the impact of pets into different areas of people’s lives, with the first, and most obvious, area, being emotional support.
Pets were reported to have the effect of reducing feelings of loneliness, depression, worry and irritability, and increasing feelings of calmness. People reported that they felt a profound connection with their pet, sometimes preferring relationships with pets over relationships with other humans.
There was a strong sense that pets provided a consistent source of comfort and affection, and that this was always available instantaneously without request. Furthermore, people had a sense that pets provided calming support to them, and they had a perception that somehow, animals had some type of intuitive sense about the times when their human owners needed this support, at times of crisis and during periods of active symptoms.
As well as this, pets were noted to have a positive impact on the general sense of loneliness which is so common in contemporary society, providing physical contact which reduced feelings of isolation, a source of physical warmth and companionship, and by providing opportunities for communication. Many people talk to their pets, often believing that their pets understand them.
One study even found that people were able to confide in their pets when they were unable to open up to other people, and that the sense of relief felt afterwards was very helpful. People reported that their dogs allowed them to express their feelings and clarify their thoughts. Animals are particularly helpful because there’s no concern that that they will interrupt, be critical, offer unrequested advice, or betray confidence, all of which can be problematic when having honest discussions with other people.
Additionally, pets are social enablers, making it easier for people who may feel shy to talk to other people that they encounter while out and about.
Very importantly, pets in the studies were perceived as providing unconditional love and affection, which helped people hugely with self-acceptance and a sense of being OK with the world. People felt that pets understood and honoured personal boundaries, and people valued the fact that pets don’t hold past behaviours against them. Furthermore, pets encouraged their owners to stay in the present moment, avoiding worry about the future and gloomy reflections on the past.
As an additional supporter of self confidence, people felt that their status as “pet owner” was seen in a positive light by the society around them, and the mastery achieved through the training of animals also helped to foster a positive sense of self.
Pets were also seen as important in providing physical protection for their owners: this is one of the most ancient of reasons why humans have kept dogs as pets, and it’s as important today as it has always been. Burglars are less likely to carry out robberies at households that have dogs, for good reason.
Negative aspects of pet keeping were also highlighted in the review: the physical tasks involved in pet care, the financial cost, issues about housing, and of course, the emotional distress at the end of a pet’s life.
Overall, pets are good for us, even if (or especially if) we have mental health issues. Murray – and Clive – will attest to that!