Dogs are man’s best friend, the old saying goes.
But now there is scientific evidence that dogs – and cats, birds, and even Guinea pigs – not only serve as a best friend to many people with bipolar or schizophrenia, but may also be a critical component to their recovery and mental stability.
Research published in December in BMC Psychiatry showed that most people with bipolar and schizophrenia placed their pets in “the central, most valued circle of support,” per the paper.1 “Pets constituted a valuable source of illness work in managing feelings through distraction from symptoms and upsetting experiences, and provided a form of encouragement for activity.”
The researchers, psychiatrists from the University of Manchester in England, said that despite their findings, “Pets were unanimously neither considered nor incorporated into individual mental health care plans.”
The sample of 54 adults, 25 of whom had pets, all had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. The researchers conducted interviews with the subjects and also had them map their relationships with others.
It’s just the latest study to demonstrate the emotional support pets offer people suffering from mental illness. Increasingly, pets are even being “prescribed” to people in the U.S. suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The pets often are highly trained to perform a variety of tasks to help people with PTSD manage anxiety.
Of course, pets also require a considerable degree of care and responsibility from their owners. But it’s that responsibility, as well as the pride of providing care to another living being, that conveys many of the therapeutic benefits that people with mental illness are sadly not getting from their fellow humans.
Pets Offer Responsibility, Purpose
In various interviews, people in the study described how their pets made them feel. Sixty percent of the subjects placed their pets inside the circle of those considered most vital to their emotional stability.
“It was often the case that where relationships with family and friends were seen to be good, animal-human relationships were perceived to be of secondary importance,” the authors reported. “However, the majority of people reported either having difficult relationships with other network members including friends and family or had little or limited other network support in addition to their pets.”
Said one subject in the study, “Although my mum and dad are very significant figures, they’ve also got their own lives and lots of others things going on so I’m only one aspect of that life, and I feel that the pets I suppose, they depend on me, and also I have daily contact with them, and they also give me a sense of wellbeing.” She placed all 10 of her birds in her inner circle.
Many subjects reported that if it weren’t for their pets, they might not even get out of bed some days. But they know they must feed and tend to their animals, particularly those that require going outside.
“And I just try and make sure that I walk him…but sometimes I can’t be bothered to do that, but then I think…I…I think about, you know, that’s not fair [if he doesn’t go],” said another subject.
In a story reported by CNN, Lori Marino, a psychology professor at Emory University, said she has worked with a homeless pet rescue. It was her job to decide whether a person would be granted a pet. She said if someone said, “I want this dog because I am depressed and need a pick-me-up,” she would “always decline that person,” adding “It’s not fair to the dog to go to a home that’s not emotionally healthy. A dog shouldn’t be used as medicine.”2
Pets Help People in Recovery ‘Get Out of Self’
Few would argue that making sure a pet goes to an owner who takes care of it is vital. But the Manchester study, although the sample was small, demonstrated that most people with mental illness who had pets had them because they loved and appreciated them. Only one subject expressed some dismay about her pet, saying he was “blocking the achievement of aspirational goals associated with recovery, such as travel,” the authors wrote.
“The only thing is, my future plans revolve around saving up as much money as possible and traveling for as many years as possible which means [the] dogs and cat that I’ve got I won’t be able to keep,” the subject reported.
A person in mental health treatment considering getting a pet may want to talk about it first with their physician or therapist if they have any doubts. Caring for a pet is essential and not doing so is not only irresponsible and not fair to the pet, but can also lead to criminal charges.
However, most people in the Manchester study said again and again that the pets gave them purpose, and that they gained a sense of pride from providing excellent care for their animals. In other words, pets gave people in recovery “something bigger than themselves,” as they say in 12-Step circles, which can be critical to getting out of “self” and remaining focused on recovery. Other people have cited caring for their young children or their elderly parents in such ways that helped motivate and sustain their recovery.
Pooches Bring Peace to People with PTSD
Increasingly, pets – dogs, in particular – are being found to be highly effective mental health treatment for American veterans returning from war with PTSD.
Recently, a video went viral on the Internet of a veteran with PTSD lighting up and even breaking into tears when he is presented with a beagle puppy. The video had more than half a million page views, and can be viewed by clicking here.
The owner of the pet is Peter Coukoulis of Tallahassee, Florida. Like many veterans, he recently returned from war with PTSD. Even Peter’s homecoming celebration and the media hype surrounding his puppy video were triggers.
Peter, like many people with PTSD, cannot handle large crowds. As a result, he largely sticks to himself, which has been concerning for his family and friends. So, they got him the beagle.
When Peter returned from Afghanistan, he learned the longtime family beagle that he grew up with had died. At the same time, his marriage ended, as do so many military marriages do when a veteran returns with PTSD.
Some veterans and even civilians with PTSD and other anxiety disorders are being “prescribed” highly trained dogs by their doctors. For example, the dogs can be “trained to provide tactile and pressure stimulation” for their owners and “block off people to separate them from the veteran when that’s needed,” reported Lee Enterprises, which owns newspapers across America.3
“They can sense when you’re having a trigger (a PTSD episode) before you know you’re triggering,” explained Denise Wenz, a Wisconsin National Guard veteran who trains the dogs. The dogs even can be trained to nibble at a veteran’s feet when they begin having seizures or nightmares.
“What’s really great in the dogs is they give you a break in the timeline,” Wenz told Lee. “They can pull you back into reality.”
Laws Restricting Service Dogs for Those with Mental Illness in Some Areas
Unfortunately, the notion of taking dogs into public places for emotional support is still being challenged in some courts around the country. While the Americans with Disabilities Act does provide protections for people who use service animals, the law pertaining to what a “service animal” entails is not written in such a way that gives legitimacy to the use of the dogs beyond more established purposes, such as to help the blind.
Another organization called Heeling Allies explains how service dogs can be used to help teens and adults with Tourette Syndrome.
It can cost between a few thousand to several thousand dollars to train a dog. Some communities have local veterans’ organizations and other groups that can pick up the tab.
But for others, simply obtaining an animal from a shelter at little or no cost may offer tremendous mental health benefits, so long as the prospective owner is ready for the responsibility.
“Successfully caring for a pet could provide a source of validation,” the authors of the Manchester study wrote. “Pet owners talked about the pride associated with having a pet that was seen to be well loved and well cared for. Given the high levels of unemployment and isolation within the sample, participants had limited other opportunities to develop this form of validation.”
1. Brooks, H. et al. (2016, Dec. 9). Ontological security and connectivity provided by pets: A study in the self-management of the everyday lives of people diagnosed with a long-term mental health condition. BMC Psychiatry. Retrieved Jan. 6, 2017, from https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-016-1111-3
2. Landau, E. (2012, Aug. 1). Dogs: A medicine for health problems? CNN. Retrieved Jan. 6, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/01/health/mental-health-service-dogs/
3. Stetzer, R. (2016, Dec. 28). Waiting to serve: Dog groomed to help veteran. Lee Enterprises News Network. Retrieved Jan. 6, 2017, from http://chippewa.com/news/local/waiting-to-serve-dog-groomed-to-help-veteran/article_54794d73-9279-5dce-bea6-c564e46eeb4d.html
Written by David Heitz