Research Reveals Owning a Pet Dog Could Prevent Suicide in Autistic Adults
A new study has revealed the positive impact of dog ownership for autistic adults. Researchers from the University of Lincoln, UK, including their visiting professor and TV personality Chris Packham, carried out the study to determine the impact of the relationship between people who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and their pet dog. […]
A new study has revealed the positive impact of dog ownership for autistic adults.
Researchers from the University of Lincoln, UK, including their visiting professor and TV personality Chris Packham, carried out the study to determine the impact of the relationship between people who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and their pet dog.
A sample of 36 autistic dog owners were questioned about their relationship with their dog and how it impacted their mental wellbeing. Six of these respondents reported that their dogs had prevented them from taking their own lives.
They indicated that this was due to the positive impact of the dog’s affection, as well as a concern over the responsibility of caring for the animal.
The team have been trying to understand the positive impact of pet ownership amongst different populations and had not come across this sort of response among other groups they had spoken to.
The researchers report how affectionate dog-owner interactions, such as cuddling and walking, improved the emotions and moods of autistic dog owners most frequently. Routine-like activities such as feeding the pet, also particularly enhanced life functioning.
Scientists at Lincoln point out that the positive impact of dogs does not seem to be particularly related to their age, breed, or even size. Any dog has the potential to improve their owner’s happiness if there is affection between them and the potential negative aspects of dog ownership, such as behavioural problems, are minimised.
Although the majority of the interactions people have with their dogs appear to be positive, there was also a potential mental health cost associated with poor health in the dog, death and certain other obligations to the dog.
Mental health problems disproportionally affect autistic adults. Generally, around 25% of UK adults suffer with a diagnosed mental health problem – compared to 80% of adults on the autism spectrum. Depression and anxiety are the leading mental health issues experienced by autistic people and suicide is a leading cause of premature death amongst these individuals. This is linked to numerous factors including a lack of support. The study, published in Scientific Reports, suggests that having a dog could greatly improve the well-being of many autistic adults and assist suicide prevention strategies in this high-risk group.
Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine at the University of Lincoln, who specialises in human-companion animal interactions, said: “If this study is representative, then dogs owned by autistic people in the UK could be responsible for saving thousands of lives in that community – a really important finding that doesn’t seem to have been picked up before.
“I’ve spent my professional career looking at the impact of dogs on humans and believe that the relationship between a person and a dog is particularly impactful for those with autism.
“Although adults with autism might struggle with social relationships, it doesn’t mean they’re not lonely. A dog is not going to let you down or betray you and that is something a lot of people find reassuring – just the dog being there helps people feel more secure about all sorts of things.”
Ana Maria Barcelos, a PhD student at the University who led the research, added: “Although the general population of dog owners enjoy the relationship with their dog, autistic owners seem to benefit more from this relationship. The simple presence of the dog seems to enable them to do things they would not do otherwise. For example, going to the shop and going on regular walks – our respondents appear to feel generally more confident within the presence of their pet dog.
“The dog’s presence, the routine of looking after the dog and tactile interactions with the dogs seem to be key factors that help to improve the mental health of autistic individuals.
“We now hope to build on this research – which we believe could have real-world implications and perhaps even reduce the rate of suicide in people with autism.”