Is Owning a Pet Good for Our Mental Health? One Researcher Says the Evidence is Weak

Animal-assisted therapy is increasingly being used nowadays. But does this practice make an impact? 

 

A bull dog sits on the bed while a woman opens the curtains.
Photo: Getty Images

We see such studies in magazines, in the newspaper, and on websites all the time, that pets can help ease things like depression or anxiety. They also can aid in your quest for love. Guys who are dog lovers have long known that a trip to the dog park can get you a date, and one study backs this up. Another finds that positive interactions with your dog can help you make more friends and improve on the friendships you have.  


Pets are even thought to help the sick and the elderly—particularly those with Alzheimer’s, and patients whose prognosis is grim. The way we love our pets, like one of the family, makes us feel deep in our gut that such findings must be true. Yet, a new study finds that there is actually little evidence to support these claims.  

Animal-based therapy isn’t new. Sigmund Freud often had a dog present in sessions with his patients as a calming presence. Social workers today use animals as an ice breaker, particularly when working with adolescence or children. These latest findings are particularly important nowadays however, as more and more hospitals, nursing homes, universities, prisons, and other such facilities, are using animal-assisted therapy as a way to calm residents and improve their condition. According to a review published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, such initiatives may have been enacted prematurely. Though it makes sense that contact with pets would have a positive impact, the truth is, from strictly a scientific standpoint, we don’t really know for sure.

So far, such studies have failed to account for the impact interaction with the animal’s trainer has.

Human-animal interaction has been a subject of research for decades. Even so, the evidence is a wash, according to psychologist Molly Crossman, who conducted the review. Some studies find that interacting with pets has benefits, others do not. Another problem is the quality of such studies. For instance, those that look at animal-assisted therapy have only examined the short-term impact. Also, there isn’t usually a control group to compare results to in these studies. So whether the impact is significant is in question and if so, whether or not the benefit is long-term. It is clear that human–animal interaction (HAI) has a small to medium impact in the near-term, but beyond that, we just don’t know.  

This kind of research may be tainted for another reason. In many of these settings, a trainer brings the animal in. But what effect is the trainer having on these outcomes? The positive benefits might derive not from interacting with the animal but its handler. Owning a pet has also been determined to have health and psychological benefits. And although we can see those who have a dog or a cat at a young age are less likely to develop allergies, with the psychological advantages, since these were observational studies, the results are indeterminable, at least for now.

Is this review enough to question the validity of animal-assisted therapy? There are several theoretical reasons why interacting with friendly animals on a regular basis may improve our condition. Animals and humans can share positive emotions, for instance. Say someone is terminally ill and suffering from chronic pain. They take part in animal-assisted therapy. Playing or cuddling with a cute dog or cat would improve their mood. Since mood has been proven to dampen or heighten pain, a better mood would hypothetically improve their condition. Yet, there is such a thing as the placebo effect. Another consideration often overlooked, according to Crossman, is the impact the therapy has on the animal itself.

One problem standing in the way of empirical evidence is our cultural outlook on such animals. Most people say they just feel the benefits of cuddling with a loving dog or cat, so the need for unbiased data is a moot point. But we can’t just assume a therapy is helpful simply because our upbringing, outlook, or culture tends to have us feel a certain way. Uniformity and untainted evidence are indeed critical to progress in medical science and psychiatry. So what is needed moving forward is better methodology where such studies are concerned.

If you’re a pet owner and you want to understand your furry friend better, click here:

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