What do studies into dogs and mental health show?

The number of people affected by mental health conditions is significant. A NICE review in 2019 found that 1 in 4 adults are dealing with a mental health condition. Research has been conducted over the years into the relationship with animals and improved wellbeing. 

As dog owners it is very easy to assume the positive impact they have upon our own mental health. In studies this has been harder to demonstrate. In fact, some studies have concluded a worsening in depressive symptoms. This could be due to many different factors, including but not limited to: lack of obedience, concerns over the dog’s health and the financial burden.

There have been studies focused on PTSD that have shown benefit in both the owners happiness and reduction in symptoms associated with depression. A study conducted in 2022 (Dogs and the Good Life-Frontiers in Psychology) demonstrated both the positive benefit of dogs in people suffering with mental health conditions. There were also some of the negative impacts.

Studies looking into this subject have always struggled with the mixed population and demographics of both dogs and owners. So much variation in owner and dog makes any study result difficult to conclude with some authority.

What benefits can dogs bring?

Whatever the causes of mental health conditions there are many good reasons to own a dog. Companionship is certainly important particularly for those that feel lonely, dogs are great companions! Dogs can provide great support, always happy to provide affection and a non-judgemental ear. 

Routine can be important and dog ownerships helps with this. Dogs need walking and feeding thus creating routine for those that may benefit. Data to support all these claims may not be easy to come by. Anyone who has ever owned a dog will know how much happiness they can bring!

What may be the risks associated with dog ownership and mental health?

Dog ownership is a huge commitment that should never be underestimated. Financially dogs can be expensive (to buy, to feed, to insure etc).This can create further stress in some owner’s lives. 

Dogs need looking after for the duration of their lives. Dogs need walking, feeding, healthcare and general entertainment. Last minute spontaneity is harder with dogs and requires some planning. 

Once you have fallen in love with your dog/s (which is usually instantly!). Then being away from them can be stressful and generate its own anxiety. Dogs are individuals, and whilst some breeds have certain behavioural traits, predictability of dog’s personality isn’t an absolute. Again this can create extra stress. 

Summary

Whilst clinical data doesn’t unequivocally give us the answers, it does help potential dog owners consider dogs as an option to aid mental health and wellbeing. If you have a mental health condition or not, dog ownership is a serious commitment and should be considered carefully weighing up pros and cons of your own personal circumstances.

NB we have focused on dogs as pets not on specialist assistance dogs.

If you want to learn about helping your dogs mental health then view our article here.