Does Living With A Dog Really Help Your Mental Health?
From their old time role as hunting companions and guardians, to more modern roles such as acting as service animals, it’s easy to find examples of dogs helping us accomplish things we would have difficulty doing on our own. It’s long been speculated that living with companion dogs may help our mental health; indeed, many people self-report being happier around dogs, but is there scientific evidence backing this up? This study set out to determine whether dogs can actually improve short-term mental distress and long-term mental illness.
Participants in this study were drawn from the Health Survey for England, which is essentially a repeated cross-sectional survey of English adults to determine health trends. Just over 68,000 English adults took part in this survey, around 15,000 of whom reported living with a dog in the household. For the purposes of this study, simply living with a dog was counted as “dog ownership” [sic], regardless of the actual relationship between the human and dog. Marital status was also asked, with a simple yes/no answer.
Mental health was assessed in the short-term by asking twelve questions about symptoms of mental distress. Participants who reported having three or more of these symptoms in the past four weeks were classified as being mentally distressed. Long-term mental illness was determined by simply asking participants whether they had any long-standing disability, infirmity, or disability, and cross-referencing the self-reports with a list of diagnosable mental illnesses. To account for confounding variables, participants’ age, socio-economic status, household size, exercise levels, and drug/alcohol use were also determined through either face-to-face interviews or during a nurse’s visit.
Dog guardians tended to be younger and of lower socioeconomic status, and were more likely than non-guardians to be married and use tobacco and alcohol. No relationship was found between dog guardianship and short-term mental health, but guardians did have lower rates of long-term mental illness. However, the positive relationship between mental health and guardianship was only found in people who were married. Solitary dog guardians actually had higher rates of short-term mental distress than those without dogs, and had similar rates of long-term mental illness.
This study could show that dog guardianship alone has little to no effect on the mental well-being of humans. However, the authors caution that there are numerous alternate explanations and limitations. Firstly, it’s possible that mentally ill people adopt a dog for the express purpose of companionship – there may be an elevated baseline that masks the dog’s positive effect on mental health. If someone goes from daily panic attacks without a dog to weekly panic attacks with a dog, then the dog would appear to have a positive effect, even if the person is still mentally ill. The person’s relationship with the dog was also not explored in-depth. For the purposes of this study, someone who barely interacted with their household’s dog would be counted the same as someone who had a strong relationship with their dog. Furthermore, the relationship between marital status and mental health could be an example of reverse-causation. Marriage might not improve mental health; mentally healthy people might just more likely to be married. Finally, self-reporting is always an imperfect method of collecting information, especially with something as complex as mental illness. People without official diagnoses may not report themselves as having a long-term mental illness, even if they do. They may also feel a stigma in doing so.
Overall, this study is difficult to make definitive causal inferences from. There are too many alternate explanations to determine whether dogs have a positive or negative effect on mental health, though it’s clear that dog guardianship is not a panacea for mental illness. To improve upon this study, questions could be asked about the relationship between the participants and their dogs, to see if more-involved guardians have better mental health. Furthermore, information about the severity of mental distress over time would be important to know. Dogs may not actually “cure” mental illness, but it’s very possible that they can help.