Can pets improve your mental health?
Posted Friday 28 August 2009
Conversations about cats seem to be all the rage at Mind at the moment. No, we're not expanding our remit; staff and volunteers who are proud pet owners are discussing the latest in pet psychology books.
From my point of view, it is animals or pets as therapy for either physical or mental health issues that is the topic, whether it be the option to get a dog in Lewisham using your individual budget care allowance or swimming with dolphins to cure depression.
Read a little closer, and of course the questions start coming. A review of studies into dolphin-assisted therapy found that the studies were methodologically flawed and also failed to investigate any long term benefits. Another review of the link between pet ownership and health found that research this decade found no reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, no decrease in the use of primary care and no psychological or physical benefits to older people living in the community associated with pet ownership.
Kruger and Serpell writing in Handbook on animal-assisted therapy "Despite their long history and the unequivocally positive media attention they typically receive, animal-assisted interventions are currently best described as a category of promising complementary practices that are still struggling to demonstrate their effectiveness and validity" (p.21).
Even recent research looking at therapy using farm animals failed to adequately control for effects of working outdoors or increased socialisation opportunities as being part of the research and not the control group. Then there is the need to consider the impact on the animals being used for therapy.
If this sort of therapy option gets positive media attention then researchers should harness that interest to plan and fund robust research to investigate the effectiveness of what could be a relatively safe, inexpensive and non-invasive treatment option.
Bridget O'Connell, Head of Information
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