Ask The Vet: Can Pets Help With Anxiety?

Woman caresses her pet dog

In recent years the subject of emotional support animals has stirred much debate in public and political spheres and the issue has polarized people across the United States. In essence, the argument has been framed as a battle between those arguing for compassion in the tolerance of pets accompanying people in their day to day activities and those pushing back against what they see as excessive pandering to the sensitivities of the few.

People with anxiety related health issues are one of the stakeholders in this debate because many believe that the accompaniment of an emotional support animal can help to alleviate stress and worry.

But instead of allowing this article to descend into a philosophical battle of what crosses the boundaries of acceptable behavior, I’m keen to focus my analysis on the actual evidence regarding the effectiveness of pet ownership in helping people with PTSD, anxiety, and depression, among other serious mental health concerns.

Depression & Pet Ownership

2018 saw the publishing of one of the most comprehensive reviews ever regarding the role of pets in alleviating the symptoms of mental health conditions. This study is significant because it gathered together a multitude of data sources to examine both the quality and findings of the research.

The evidence emerging from this study supports the hypothesis that pets contribute to improved mental health through the provision of companionship and emotional support. Although it is impossible to generalize these findings to all pet owners, it appears that many benefits from a ‘calming’ influence through their pet.

Factors that may influence the strength of this effect include the extent of bonding between animal and owner, the capability of the owner to meet the financial demands of pet ownership, and the obedience and behavior of the pet on a day to day basis.

Many breeds of dog are considered ideal companions but ownership of the animal also places significant demands on the caretaker in terms of caring, walking, and feeding the pet adequately. In some cases, this responsibility can have positive ramifications in prompting the owner to approach life in a proactive and positive manner.

Another interesting study conducted in 2017 explored the role of pet ownership in the wellbeing of HIV patients. Researchers concluded that dog ownership, in particular, was able to lower the risk of depression in the population studied. This raises interesting questions as to whether those suffering from an HIV diagnosis should pursue pet ownership as a means of boosting mental health.

Anxiety & Pet Ownership

Interest in research into the role of pets in emotional support has surged in recent times. This is a positive development in helping to inform both sides of the debate. Another 2018 review collected 17 previous studies and reached the conclusion that pets do indeed benefit people with mental health problems. The advantages conferred by pet ownership are highly specific to each individual and people report a variety of reasons for why their pet boosts their coping capabilities.

One woman named Pam quoted in the study described a situation in which her dog helped to alleviate a panic attack at night. The presence of her pet in accompanying Pam in the bedroom was a source of comfort and reassurance. This anecdote is one which we hear repeated regularly in a variety of contexts and situations.

In 2017 another set of researchers sought to establish the role of pets in helping undergraduate students to cope with stressors. The conclusion reached was that dog exposure could indeed serve as a viable and useful tool in fighting and overcoming stress and anxiety.

Loneliness & Pet Ownership

Loneliness and solitude is not a conscious decision in the vast majority of cases. Bereavement, disability, and mental health conditions can all force people into situations where they lack close friends and companions.

The desire for closeness and friendship is the most human of wishes and individuals suffering from isolation deserve compassion and most importantly of all — strategies for alleviating the detrimental effects of persistent loneliness.

Dog ownership offers a dual-pronged benefit to isolated individuals: first, by offering an opportunity to interact with other dog owners while on walks, and second, through the mutual love and support shared between you and your dog.

The authors of a study published in a psychology journal concluded that feelings of loneliness can be reduced by pet ownership in women who live alone. Further research has backed up this conclusion by showing that elderly women may recover from loneliness more effectively when supported by a pet. The authors reached this conclusion after delving into the nature of pet ownership — both as a response to loneliness and as a means of overcoming the negative effects of isolation in later life.

The Outlook

The inescapable question that we must come back to is the debate regarding the role of pets in the lives of people suffering from one of any number of issues in their lives. Should we increase our tolerance of individuals wishing to acquire a pet as an emotional support companion? And what are the barriers standing in the way of progress in this area?

Although there is a strong body of evidence to support the hypothesis that pet companionship can help alleviate symptoms of many conditions, resistance from groups opposing the acceptance of emotional support animals is strong.

The argument made is that the presence of pets in public areas  (including public transport) represents an unwelcome intrusion into the lives of other people. Sometimes the objection comes from those with allergies or those who believe, rightly or wrongly, that pets can slow down or disrupt people going about their activities.

Of course, the issue is complex and polarizing but further research supporting the benefits of pet ownership can only serve to push the issue to the forefront of people’s minds. Greater acceptance of emotional support animals may follow as awareness of the needs of their owners grows.


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