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Are Companion Pets a Legitimate Claim?

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Companion pets for therapy gains support

News of late contains several stories of people trying successfully and unsuccessfully to board airline flights with a companion pet in tow claiming that their companion pet is necessary to their mental well-being--peacocks and hedgehogs for example. Here's what a new study has to say about the evidence of companion pets and pet owner mental health.


Chances are that if you've been to an arts performance at a metropolitan music hall or flown this past holiday season, you've noticed that that seeing-eye dogs are not the only pets allowed (or sneaked into) in many public venues. These pets are typically referred to as "companion" or "therapy" pets by their owners.

Unlike service animals such as a seeing-eye dog specially trained to perform tasks directly related to the handler's disability, a therapy and emotional support pet is not trained to render a specific task, but merely provides comfort and coping assistance to an individual in some fashion--particularly people with mental health conditions such as in dealing with stress reduction and/or using pets as a way to promote social and community interaction with others.

According to a new study published in BMC Psychiatry, researchers point out that in spite of growing acceptance toward the validity of companion pets playing a therapeutic role in helping people with mental health conditions, there has not been a systematic review of evidence supporting (or negating) how pets might contribute to the work associated with managing a long-term mental health condition.

To examine the evidence, researchers reviewed 17 international research papers, to identify the positive and negative impacts of pet ownership with a focus on pet owners' connectedness toward the companion pet and how the pet contributed to the owners' well-being.

What the review found was that there is much evidence supporting the validity of the usefulness-if not need-for some people to have a companion pet nearby. Examples include:

1. There is a recurrent theme where people reported a profound connection with their pet to the degree that the pet is preferred over human companionship and/or the pet became essentially a replacement family member.

2. Pets were able to provide unique emotional support as a result of their ability to respond to their owners in an intuitive way, especially in times of crisis and periods of active symptoms.

3. A related impact on loneliness was achieved through physical contact which reduced feelings of isolation providing a source of physical warmth and companionship and by providing opportunities for communication with others.

4. Pets can provide unconditional positive regard, which promoted emotional stability through the regulation of feelings, management of stress and helping people to cope with difficult life event.

5. Pets were found to have indirect influences on well-being due to pets encouraged behavior activation in patients, were seen to enhance mobility related to increased exercise and promoting contact with nature-all of which are considered beneficial to mental health.

However, the review also found that there are some negative aspects to having a companion or therapy pet:

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1. Financial costs and housing situations: the burden of pet ownership especially apparent if pets were unruly which could be detrimental to mental health and the guilt that owners experienced if this was not managed successfully.
Horses and dogs were considered the most burdensome in this regard and research highlighted the importance of matching pets to individual circumstances.

2. The early stages of pet ownership were often the most difficult for people but were concomitantly considered as an important investment in terms of future support and companionship.

3. Pets could also be seen as a barrier to aspirational goals associated with recovery such as travel.

4. The potential or actual loss of beloved companion animals was a major source of distress for owners but it was acknowledged that joy could still be taken in their memories once death had been come to terms with and that such experiences could facilitate understanding of other difficult life events.

Study Conclusions

The researchers concluded that "Despite some inadequacies in the data, this review suggests that pets provide benefits to those with mental health conditions through the intensity of connectivity with their owners and the contribution they make to emotional support in times of crises together with their ability to help manage symptoms when they arise."

"Our review suggests that pets provide benefits to those with mental health conditions. Further research is required to test the nature and extent of this relationship, incorporating outcomes that cover the range of roles and types of support pets confer in relation to mental health and the means by which these can be incorporated into the mainstay of support for people experiencing a mental health problem," stated Dr. Helen Brooks, from the University of Liverpool's Institute of Psychology, Health and Society and lead author of the study.

For more about the value of a companion pet, here is an informative article that recommends For Children with Autism, 6th Birthday Gift is a Pet.


University of Liverpool news 2.12.2018 "New study highlights the impact companion animals have on owners."

BMC Psychiatry, 2018; 18 (1) "The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence" Helen Louise Brooks et al.

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