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adorable picture of my cat Simba

Pets and Mental Health

I was out of college and living with my boyfriend (henceforth referred to as P) for over a year before we got our first pet together–a senior Birman cat named Simba, pictured above.

I’d had pets growing up, and I’d missed them fiercely while at college and would look forward to snuggling them over break (especially Patches, my bud, my baby boy, the cat to which all future cats will be compared and who has hopefully found a nice human whose face he can lay upon in heaven) but after college, my pet fixes were fewer and farther between.

Enter Simba. An older couple moving across the country couldn’t take their 11 year old cat with them and were giving him free to a good home. Having moved from an apartment to a house and no longer having a pet fee hanging over our heads and having the ability to block a cat out of the kitchen (very important to P), the timing was right.

We’ve had him for just over 2 months now, and during that time, my mood has been as good as it has been at any point in the last 2 years, and it has stayed that way consistently, without any major dips. My last depressive episode–a mini one I call it, as it wouldn’t hold up to DSM V standards in terms of length–was in April. So I’ve gone 5 months (and counting!) without one, which is the longest I’ve made it between episodes for the last 2 years.

Now, I’m not going to attribute that all to Simba. I know correlation does not equal causation, and the fact that we also moved to a new house and I started a new job during that timeframe adds other variables to the mood equation. But still–I’d heard of the benefits of pets for mental health, but now I’d experienced it for myself, in my own n=1 study.

***Warning: What follows is a lot of me yammering on about my researching. What can I say–I work at a college library and have access to lots of great sources. But if you care less about the research behind floofy doggos making people feel good and more about the fact that you like floofy doggos, then feel free to skip to the last two paragraphs of this post.***

I did a little research to see if studies a tad bigger than my own had been conducted looking into the benefits of pets for mental health, particularly depression. I was surprised to find out that there weren’t many published papers looking specifically at depression. There were more papers looking at the potential benefits of pets (usually dogs) for older people, including those with dementia.

One good article I read discussed the methodological difficulties of studies looking to find a causal effect between pet-ownership and health, and the inherent differences between pet-owners and non-pet-owners, which is to say that “factors that contribute to selecting to have a dog could themselves have health impacts that could be mistakenly attributed to dog ownership.” In the authors’ own study, they found that pet owners were more likely to be younger, white, and live in households where all adults are employed full time, while dog owners specifically were more likely to also own their own home and have a higher household income. While money can’t buy happiness, it can buy a certain degree of health–so could socioeconomic factors be the true predictors of health, rather than pet/dog-ownership? The inverse relationship between social class and mortality has been well studied.

The authors of the first study I linked to came to the conclusion that the links between pet-ownership and better health may be overstated due to selection bias (i.e., the fact that people who are more likely to own pets are also more likely to be in better health and receive better healthcare in the first place). However, this study was not specific to depression or mental health. It is worth noting here that low socioeconomic status is associated with increased risk of mental illness, and as we’ve just seen, it is also associated with lower rates of pet- and especially dog-ownership. With that thought in mind, I continued my search.

I did find a study that linked animal-assisted intervention with farm animals to a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety. Interesting, but not quite what I’d been hoping to find.

On a more relevant note, a 2016 study reported that people with long-term mental health diagnoses listed their pets as one of the most important factors in managing their mental health. Another study said that women and single adults were more likely to benefit from dog-ownership in terms of mental health, but sadly I cannot link to it here, as it is behind a paywall that I can only bypass thanks to the fact that I work at a college.* That study does also suggest that inconsistencies in literature on pets and health may have been caused by overlooking factors such as marital status and gender, both of which may affect the effect that dogs have on a person’s mental well-being.

***End of research yammering***

So, after all my searching, it seems that the evidence for pets being beneficial to mental health is mostly anecdotal and based on self-reported data. Because while searching PubMed and other high-falutin databases did not turned up only a few helpful results, a simple Google search of “pets and mental health” pulled up plenty of non-academic sources saying, Yes! Pets are GREAT for mental health!.

As a future-librarian and holder of a B.S. in neuroscience, I do value academic literature and a good controlled study with airtight methodology. But as a human being with feelings, I am quite happy to say that based on my own experience–and the self-reported experiences of many others–pets can help improve a person’s mental health.

*If you too are at an institution with lots of journal subscriptions, the article I’m talking about is: Clark Cline, KM (2010). Psychological effects of dog ownership: Role strain, role enhancement, and depression. Journal of Social Psychology, 150(2), 117-131.

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