RESEARCH: Pets may help people beat mental health problems

Scientists at the University of Liverpool in England have conducted a study on the benefits of pets for people with mental health problems.

Researcher Helen Brooks, and her colleagues at the University of Liverpool, studied 17 international research papers on pets and human benefits, particularly involving people with mental health problems. They studied the extent, nature, and quality of the evidence of pet ownership.

They found positive, negative, and neutral impacts of pets on people with mental health problems. However, there were many ways in which pets contributed to the work associated with managing a mental health condition, particularly in times of crisis, trauma, or stress.



Of the 17 research studies of pet ownership, 15 of them reported positive aspects of pet ownership for people experiencing mental health problems, 9 reported negative elements, and 4 reported neutral aspects (no change to the person’s mental health or perceived mental health).

The negative aspects included practical and emotional burdens of pet ownership, and the psychological impact of losing a pet. These included financial costs, unruly pets, and guilt if they could not look after their pet.



The positive aspects included alleviating worry, providing comfort agains feeling of loneliness and isolation, physical activity, a distraction from symptoms (forgetting that they had a problem), an introduction to meeting people for social interactions, emotional nourishment, and a sense of self-worth (needing to be available for their pet to look after them, and taking responsibililty for their pet’s wellbeing).

This was a short, literature study, and the researchers suggest further research. Further rigorous research is needed to test the relationship between pets and human mental health. It was difficult for researchers to distinguish between studies that were directly connected to mental health problems, and those which studied the general health benefits for all pet owners (not just those with mental health problems).

For example, one study conducted in Sweden showed that people living with a dog had beneficial effects, especially for people living alone.



Bekoff, Marc. 2017. Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us.

Bekoff, Marc. 2018. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Helen Louise Brooks, Kelly Rushton, Karina Lovell, Penny Bee, Lauren Walker, Laura Grant, Anne Rogers. The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence. BMC Psychiatry, 2018; 18 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s12888-018-1613-2








Photographer: Martina Nicolls



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