Contact with animals has been increasingly recognised as being beneficial to well-being due to their therapeutic function. More and more, animals have been incorporated into treatments for mental health. However, there is a lack of research about how companion animals may also help to reduce mental health symptoms. Research is biased toward researching ‘therapy animals’, and the potential adverse impacts of pets, such as worsening of symptoms, have been overlooked. This study explores people’s experiences about the role of pets in reducing or exacerbating mental health symptomology. 119 adults, 41 with a diagnosed mental health condition, completed an online survey with open-ended questions about the impact of pets on their mental health. Data was subjected to thematic analysis and seven key themes were identified; providing a reason to live, anxiety and stress reduction, mood improvement, promoting healthy lifestyles, companionship and social connectedness, adverse impacts of pets (in the broadest sense), and participants' opinions that pets are not able to ‘treat’ mental health difficulties. The findings support the important role of pets in reducing symptoms both directly (e.g. preventing panic attacks and self-harm) and indirectly (e.g. encouraging exercise and increasing social contact). The findings also show that pets can exacerbate symptoms for some, and that, even when animal interaction is regarded positively, pets cannot ‘treat’ mental health difficulties. Mental health practitioners should be aware and considerate of the importance of pets in people’s lives as well as individual differences in the potential capability of pets to both reduce or exacerbate symptomology.
- mental health