Pets' positive impacts on mental health

Man and his dog enjoy the sunset

There are many reasons to own a pet, but a study from the University of Manchester is suggesting that pets can help people living with serious mental illness to manage their conditions.

The study focused on a phenomena known as “Ontological security”, a fancy term which the studies authors explain as

“a sense of order and continuity derived from a person’s capacity to give meaning to their lives and to maintain a positive view of the self, world and future”

So, when we are ontologically secure, we feel positive, happy and that we are living meaningful lives.

But as the authors of the study explain, a persons’ ability to be positive and happy is threatened by the breakdown of, and difficulties in maintaining relationships with friends and family, the fear of stigmatisation, and the challenge of maintaining daily routines.

And this is where the positive effects of pet ownership come in for people within the study.

Sad woman and dog sit on the floor and stare out of the window
Pets can contribute to an individual's "Ontological Security" and can be of benefit to people with mental health issues

It seems that having a pet can assist people by providing unjudgemental companionship, helping their owner stick to a daily routine (i.e. walking the dog), and provide a steady and constant relationship with their owners.

Pets, at least to some extent, seem to provide that ‘ontological security’ that sufferers of some severe mental illnesses require, but may not get from other sources in their life.

The study involved more than 50 participants with a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Of the participants, 25 identified their pet as being important to the everyday management of their illness, with more than half describing their pet as being one of the most important things to them in managing their mental health.

And while the results are surprising in the direct link they suggest between pet ownership and mental health, the positive health effects of pet ownership have been acknowledged for years.

Happy dog is playing with its toy in a grassy dog park
The health benefits of pet ownership have been widely acknowledged, but have mainly focused on the physical benefits rather then the mental health benefits pets can provide

The President of the Australian Veterinarian Association (AVA), Dr Paula Parker believes the human-animal bond plays a positive role in the health and well-being of both individual pet owners, and the wider community.

“There’s already strong evidence to indicate that owning a pet brings health benefits including companionship, increased activity and exercise, and social improvements,” said Dr Parker.

“Research also suggests that pets have positive effects on the community. A study conducted by the University of Western Australia found that pets facilitate first meetings and conversations between neighbours”.

The UWA study found that over 60% of dog owners reported that they got to know their neighbours through their pets, indicating that pets can help increase social interactions and other human contact.

But while this is all good news for the humans in the relationship, Dr Parker urges us to remember the other side of the equation.

“While pets can improve our health and well-being, it’s important to remember that the human-animal bond is a two-way street and we need to provide the same benefits to our pets by ensuring we properly care for their health and welfare.

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