It is not a secret that I love animals. I’ve been teased by colleagues and friends for having a small petting zoo in my apartment- a bird, a dog, and a cat somehow living (relatively) harmoniously. These critters bring great joy to my life, even when they won’t stop screeching when I’m in Zoom meetings, and research shows I’m not alone in this feeling towards pets . As a clinician specializing in suicide prevention, it may not be surprising that my love of animals would lead me to wonder- do pets help prevent suicide? Do fluffy poodle-mixes help people keep pushing through muddy bogs of suicidal thoughts until they arrive back on dry land?
My biased assumption was “Of course! How can a dog wearing a cowboy hat not help at least a bit?” This bias is called the “pet effect”- a belief that pets will basically help whatever mental or physical health problem that exists . This bias is very intuitive for those of us who love animals , but I would not be a good psychologist if I did not painstakingly (and probably annoyingly) scrutinize any assumption I hold. Due to my bias, I remember being surprised that the scientific literature on this topic is not only sparse, but inconclusive. For example, in older adults living alone, having pets was associated with lessened loneliness  and we know that increased feelings of not belonging are associated with suicide . However, a literature review of the mental health and pet literature found both helpful and not helpful effects  and another paper found no link between pet ownership and suicide deaths .
Confused about why this was, I began to investigate why and found that the relationship one has with their pet may be very important when looking at mental health and suicide. Not everyone has a relationship with their pets like me where they obnoxiously post pictures of their dog in the aforementioned cowboy hat on Twitter . Some people appreciate their pets or are more annoyed by their pets or anything in between. We can think of relationships to our pets as both a general bond strength and quality  and the attachment style we have to our animals . By attachment style I mean what type of relationship you have to your pet, whether you have any anxiety or avoidance in the relationship, much like we might have with fellow humans .
This social aspect of the pet ownership experience is especially relevant to one theory of suicide, the interpersonal theory of suicide . This theory states that people are likely to desire death by suicide if there is a combination of feeling like they do not belong, like they are a burden on others, and if they are feeling hopeless about these states ever changing. If the person also has a fearlessness of death and high pain tolerance, they are more likely to die if they attempt suicide . Feeling like one belongs and is a burden is especially relevant to pet ownership. Having a pet can offer a sense of companionship and perhaps counter feelings of not belonging  and the responsibility of taking care of another living creature may reduce feelings of being a burden .
Naturally, I felt the need to test the assumptions and see if my “pet effect” bias was true or not. Also naturally, of course the findings were not definitive, and researchers will have to continue examining these links. For the time being, however, my colleagues and I found what most psychological studies find: it depends . We found that having a strong bond with one’s pet was associated with lowered feelings of being a burden and lower suicide risk. Having a more avoidant attachment to one’s pet was associated with higher feelings of not belonging and higher suicide risk. Having a more anxious attachment to one’s pet was associated with higher feelings of not belonging, higher feelings of being a burden, and higher suicide risk. Just like any study the study has limitations such as examining all of these variables in undergraduate students . Unfortunately, my bias that pets will always help is obviously too simple for the real world. Poodles in cowboy hats are unfortunately not a magic cure for all of life’s woes. I think the important take-away, however, is that whether a pet helps with someone’s suicidality is probably very dependent on the person, the animal, and the relationship that they hold. Future research will need to look at for who and in what contexts having a pet may be a smart move for people to cope with suicidal thoughts and behaviors. In the meantime, though, I hope you give your pet a good pat or treat for trying their best.
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- Douglas, V. [@ValerieJDougla1]. (2021, August 3). My partner impulse bought a dog cowboy outfit. Please enjoy [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/ValerieJDougla1/status/1422733236925452288?s=20
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- Douglas, V., Kwan, M., & Gordon, K. (In press). Pet Attachment and the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention. Preprint: https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/p67bu
Valerie Douglas (@ValerieJDougla1) is a clinical psychologist and postdoctoral research scholar at San Diego State University in the Body Image, Sexuality, & Health lab. Email: email@example.com.