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Pets, and what they do for our health

In its latest Croakey update, the Primary Health Care Research and Information Service (better known as PHC RIS) reports on research that may be of particular interest to pet-lovers.

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Pets and mental health: the relationship is not so straightforward

Bradley Smith writes:

Ever wondered if your pet is good for your mental health?

Researchers conducted a questionnaire study of 150 adult Australians in order to explore the connection between human animal attachment and mental health. They also wanted to determine whether social isolation and psychological distress is moderated by companion animal attachment.

While many studies have found that companion animals improve mental and physical well-being, according to this study, the mental health outcomes of pet ownership may not be all positive.

The authors report that individuals with a strong bond to their companion animal actually may be psychologically more vulnerable.

They found a high level of pet attachment was a stronger predictor of psychological symptomatology (such as anxiety, depression, somatoform symptoms) than gender, martial status, age, or number of people in a household (note, it is difficult to establish the causal direction of the association).

In this sample, around 46% of participants who were highly attached to their animals reported spending more than 16 hours with their animals each day.

However, ‘time’ might not be such a telling factor, with the authors arguing that quantity does not always equal quality. As an example, people who are retired or unemployed may spend more time with their pets than those working full time, but this does not reflect ‘quality interaction’ or engagement (such as playing, grooming or walking). It is essential to find out what the relationship means for an individual rather than just ownership status.

People with an existing network of human social support (for example, married, or living with a significant other) do not appear to have their levels of loneliness and depression influenced by the degree of pet attachment.

It is a different story for vulnerable populations such as the elderly, socially isolated, chronically ill and physically impaired, who appear to be great beneficiaries of quality pet interaction.

One potential problem arising with strong pet attachment is the possibility that it may lead to non-adherence to medical advice. As an example, a number of participants displayed uncertainty about undergoing surgery if it meant being away from their companion animal – two reporting they would refuse surgery.

The authors describe an ‘internal struggle’ that may result between their health interests and maintaining the relationship with their pet.

It is important that health professionals gain an understanding of each patient’s relationship to their pets, and learn how best to preserve the human-animal bond to prevent negative mental health outcomes.

Those with Service Animals (such as guide dogs) in particular, are at risk of distress in the event of separation. It is strongly recommended that animal accommodation policies for residents of hospices, aged care facilities and treatment institutions are developed.

Companion animals are a big part of peoples’ lives, particularly for those who are highly attached to their pets. They represent an important variable to consider for researchers and clinicians alike when examining human mental health.

• Bradley Smith is a Research Associate, Primary Health Care Research & Information Service (PHC RIS)

Peacock J, Chur-Hansen A & Winefield H  (2012). Mental health implications of human attachment to companion animals. Journal of Clinical Psychology, in press.

This article, which can be accessed at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jclp.20866/abstract, features in the 8 March 2012 edition of PHC RIS eBulletin, available at http://www.phcris.org.au/publications/ebulletin/index.php.

The eBulletin is designed to inform readers of recently published articles and reports, news items, media releases, upcoming conferences and courses, research grants, scholarships and fellowships, PHC RIS products and services and relevant websites in the primary health care field. Those interested in receiving the weekly eBulletin are invited to subscribe to the free service at http://www.phcris.org.au/mailinglists/index.php

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Previous PHC RIS columns at Croakey

Improving the diagnosis of ovarian cancer

• Chronic health problems and depression

• Helping older patients with chronic diseases to navigate the health system

• Tackling overuse of antibiotics

• When doctors prescribe exercise, does it make any difference?

• Caring for country is also good for Aboriginal people

• The perils of surrogate markers

• Are Australians willing to pay more for better oral health?

• What helps encourage self-care for those with chronic illness?

• More effort needed to strengthen shared care for people with serious mental illness

 

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