Pets can help owners manage mental illness

A woman jogging with her dog through a park during a sunny autumn day in central Sofia October 14, 2014.

(REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov )

Pets can play an active role in the treatment of their owners’ long-term mental health problems, according to the authors of a small study in the United Kingdom.

The researchers found that many pets were seen as the most valuable and central social aid owners’ lives, often providing secure relationships that are not available through human ties.

“Although the value of therapy animals for mental health problems is well documented, the nature of the role pets play in the daily management of severe mental illness is underexplored,” said lead study author Helen Brooks from the University of Manchester.

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“Pets are of great value for those who have the management of serious illness and should be considered as a mainstay instead of a marginal source of support,” she told Reuters Health.

For example, pets helped with the building of stable and close relationships that is not available elsewhere, especially for those who usually stay at home and have limited human contact, ” she said. Pets are also a consistent physical presence and often distract owners from the symptoms or upsetting experiences, such as suicidal thoughts.

Brooks and colleagues conducted interviews with 54 people who are diagnosed with long-term mental health problems, with the emphasis on the day-to-day experience of living with a mental illness. They asked about the relationship, the value and the significance of pets in the apartment of the owners life.

“I can trust him (my dog) more than people,” a participant said. “If you like this, you lose a lot of trust in the people, the family, because you tend not to tell them of things, because the less you say, the less they can say.”

Another participant said: “(The cat) knows when to come on my lap and when to leave me alone. I don’t have to tell him that he senses me, you know, he just senses my feelings.”

The study participants received a diagram with three concentric circles around a square representing the pet owner. They were asked to write in the names of people, places and things that gave them support. Of the 54 participants, 25 considered their pets to be a part of their social network. Approximately 60 percent placed the pets in the closest circle to them, and 20 percent in the second circle.

“This is probably only the second time I’ve seen a study so thoroughly look where pets sit in the human-social system and how important pets are,” said Jenny Stephany of Positive Connections, Harrow, ENGLAND, non-profit that connects people with pets. Stephany, who was not involved in the study, coordinates with various community-based pet programs for people with mental illness.

“The US and Australia are way ahead of the united kingdom in this area with pets,” she told Reuters Health. “We see this movement away from a reliance on medicines and more in the direction of the non-medical interventions.”

Various AMERICAN programs connect pets in need with people in need. Older dogs for older People and Dogs 4 Seniors, for example, older animals with the pensioners who are house-bound and want company at home. The united kingdom will be the mirror of these programs in 2017.

“I walk a dog for a woman who is 92, deaf, and isolated, and the importance of her Jack Russell is prevalent,” said Stephany. “The simple ability of an animal to exclude or include in a routine is very powerful.”

Other programs in the U.S., such as Paws on Parole and Puppies for parole, a pair of dogs on prisoners as a way to help the people back to the community and the building of responsibility. Many times, establishing a reliable non-human relationship and the stimulation of the sense of self-worth cuts down on repeat offenses, Stephany said.

“Sometimes we overlook the emotional needs that people have,” she noted. “For some health and social problems, the solution may be staring you in the face or sit on your lap.”



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