Four-Legged Therapists: Pets Provide Mental Health Help


By Childhelp Staff

We’ve all met or seen a therapy animal. For many, it is easy to accept the role of a working animal on the farm, in law enforcement, or assisting someone with a more self-evident differentiability than mental illness, but they might not understand the therapeutic potential of an animal companion in the lives of those coping with depression, anxiety or emotional issues.

New research published in the peer-reviewed journal BMC Psychiatry points to “the hidden work of pets,” concluding:

 “Pets should be considered a main, rather than a marginal, source of support in the management of long-term mental health problems and could be considered as extending more traditional Collaborative Care Models for managing mental health over time.”

The research was based on interviews with 54 long-term mental health patients about their day-to-day experience of living with their diseases. Researchers, led by Helen Brooks of the University of Manchester, asked participants to map personal networks of who was most important to them in managing their mental health.

Pets emerged in 80% of respondents’ two innermost circles, indicating patients certainly appreciated the animals’ help. Researchers used an established qualitative sociological framework (Corbin & Strauss) to even better understand the areas of work where animal support makes an impact:

  • Practical work: Everyday care related to illness and practical matters
  • Emotional work: Comfort when distressed
  • Biographical work: Supporting self-efficacy and self-fulfillment

Researchers noted that patients who had a stronger support network of humans tended to rely less on animals in their network. On the other hand, most in the study reported limited network support outside of their pets.

While the researchers acknowledge that pets can burden owners unequipped for their care, they note a broader trend in the pet serving as a bridge to others and as an emotional support where human support is unavailable. Some respondents even cited the shared understanding with their pet as surpassing that with human counterparts:

“Yes, they can give you loving, pets can and you can trust pets not to steal off you.” (ID 6, 1 guinea pig, first circle)

Pet owners cite the routine of care alone as providing benefits like exercise (walking their dog), right along with being “the only reason they got out of bed this morning.”

Other emerging themes in the interviews were the perceived ability to forge a relationship free from the stigma of mental illness, and a relationship more forgiving and intuitively responsive to the moods of the respondent.

“They [pets] don’t look at the scars on your arms, or they don’t question things, and they don’t question where you’ve been.” (ID 12, 1 dog, first circle).

All of this seems to contribute to an overarching sense of validation, belonging and self-esteem: irreplaceable assets in ongoing treatment and management of mental illness.

At Childhelp, we have always counted on working animals to ease the burden of children in our care. Therapy dogs, cats, horses, and others have been an inextricable component to our advocacy services and residential care programs for decades.

We honor the position of pets in family systems everywhere. Whether there are mental health issues in the family or not, the companionship and care of animals provides value to adults and children alike. The history of child welfare is entwined in the history of animal protection, and the spirit of compassion and feeling of belonging a pet can nurture remain powerful tools in our stand against abuse.

What kind of “invisible work” do animals do in your life or the life of those near to you? Do you have any exceptional stories of a pet or working animal sharing comfort and companionship?

We’d love to see pictures and learn more about your four-legged therapist.