Physical/Mental Circumstances that Impact Dog Ownership

Some potentially life-changing potentially life-changing physical or mental circumstances that can impact a person’s dog ownership include cancer, traumatic brain injuries, spinal injuries, addiction, dementia, schizophrenia, stroke, and visual impairment.

Life-Changing Conditions

1. Cancer

  • Cancer can impact a person’s dog ownership especially if it is life-threatening or at a late stage. For instance, someone undergoing chemotherapy for cancer may spend days at a time in the hospital and may experience fainting spells.
  • Although dogs can be a source of emotional support at such a time, such a person will be unable to care for the dog as much as they used to.

2. Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI)

  • Traumatic brain injury is a condition that can impact a person’s dog ownership.
  • Traumatic Brain Injuries differ in severity and could lead to loss of consciousness, fainting spells, visual impairment and so on.
  • This negatively impacts dog ownership as such a person can barely care for themselves let alone a dog. However, some people with the conditions are also advised to get service dogs to support and help them if they can afford it. So it can have both positive and negative impact on pet ownership.

3. Spinal Injury

  • Depending on the severity of a spinal injury which may be due to an accident, a person may suddenly find it difficult to care for his/her dog as they used to,
  • A spinal injury that leaves a person paralyzed may prevent the person from walking their dog as much as they used to. It may also impact their ability to maintain the same routine as they used to such as visiting the veterinary doctor as frequently as they used to.

4. Alzheimer and Dementia

  • Alzheimers and Dementia are conditions that can cause dog owners to forget about their dogs and to provide the necessary care. They may forget things like taking the dog to the vet, flea spray, and other necessary appointments and activities about the dog, leading to improper care of the dog.
  • This has a detrimental effect on the dogs. Not only can the dog go hungry and unkempt, and can even lead to the dog going astray or to destroying property.

5. Addiction

  • Substance addiction can greatly affect pet ownership as the owner is no longer in the right frame of mind to properly care for the pet.
  • The addicted individual may also inadvertently leave drug or substance residue where the dog can easily assess them and this substance may harm the dog.

6. Stroke

7. Visual or Hearing Impairment

  • Sudden visual or hearing impairment can negatively impact a person’s dog ownership as such a person may become dependent on a caregiver to carry out basic daily activity.
  • This can negatively affect dog ownership as the person may become unable to care for the pet properly. Such a person may even need a service dog and a caregiver that will take care of both the person and the dog.

8. Bipolar and Schizophrenia

  • Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia as well as other severe mental health condition impacts on how an individual processes things and may lead to depressive episodes.
  • This can impact pet gravely and may even lead to the individual causing great harm to their pet in one of such episodes. The person is generally disorganized and proper care for the pet is in most cases unlikely.

Pros of Having a Dog During Life-Changing Event

Some pros of having a dog when someone undergoes a life-changing physical and/or mental circumstance include mobility aid, companionship, alerting caregivers, and making new friends.

1. To Aid Mobility and Prevent Loss of Consciousness

  • A dog can help someone that has suffered a life-changing physical condition such as loss of limbs or traumatic brain injury balance while walking, retrieve dropped items, prevent further injuries due to poor coordination or visual impairment, among others.
  • They can also assist the person with rehabilitation exercises such as self-dressing, targeting, and grasping.
  • The impact of this is that it may make people seek dogs that can perform these roles. This has a positive impact on dog ownership but it could also make such a person give up their pet in favor of service dogs that are more adept at performing this support function if they can’t take care of two pets.

2. Companionship and Emotional Support

  • A dog provides companionship and emotional support to someone that undergoes a life-changing physical and/or mental circumstance.
  • Such a period can be a trying one for such a person emotionally and the loneliness, especially for a senior person, can be debilitating.
  • A dog offers companionship to such a person and helps the person cope better during such times when their condition cuts them off from their previous support network.
  • The impact of dog ownership depends on the severity of the physical or mental condition. While the dogs and pets are valued at that time for the support they provide, care for the dog may decrease if the physical or mental condition prevents the person from caring for the dog adequately.

3. Promote Healing

  • Dogs can help promote healing when someone undergoes a life-changing physical and/or mental circumstance.
  • Researchers studying veterans with a mild TBI discovered a “statistically significant increase in pituitary dysfunction and reduced neural and hormone function in the parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex/amygdala) that regulate emotional control, empathy, memory and learning. One neurohormone – oxytocin — that is impaired by TBIs is associated with symptom severity.”
  • People with pets have lower blood pressure during stressful situations and a study showed that “when people with borderline hypertension adopted dogs from a shelter, their blood pressure declined significantly within five months.”

4. Alert Caregivers

  • For someone that went through a life-changing physical and/or mental event that causes them to experience seizures or to pass out occasionally, a dog can help alert care givers when the person is experiencing seizures or has passed out.
  • This can sometimes be the difference between life and death as caregivers can spring to action in such instances and help the person recover. For such people, the pet can be a very important part of their life.

5. Increased Confidence in Social Gathering

  • Dogs help increase the confidence of people that have undergone a life-changing event. Over 70% of people with a disability reported that they left home more since acquiring a service dog.
  • Such people are more willing to go out and socialize because they know the dog will help them in most of the situations where they would otherwise need help from other people.
  • People with a disability also get more attention from passersby when accompanied to public spaces by dogs.
  • Relationships with people are also easier than service dogs bear some responsibilities in caring for someone with a disability and the main caregiver or people they are in a relationship have less burden on them.

6. Making New Friends

  • A study on the impact of service dogs on people with various disabilities revealed that 70% of them noted that the service dog helped them meet and make new friends.
  • This is probably also tied to the fact that many reported increased independence, confidence, and participation in public activities after acquiring a service dog.

Cons of Having a Dog During Life-Changing Event

Some cons of having a dog when someone undergoes a life-changing physical and/or mental circumstance include trauma due to death of support pet, the cost of dog care, leaving the pet behind to live in an assisted-living facility, unwanted attention, dog responsibility, and travel arrangement challenges.

1. Trauma Due to Death of Pet

  • The loss of a dog due to death or natural disaster can cause significant distress to a person with a mental or physical disease that once depended on the pet for companionship.
  • Researchers found that “pet loss can add considerably to acute trauma and increase the risk of long-term impacts. This highlights the potential for the loss of an animal to be of greater impact for those with diagnosable mental health conditions given the intense and positive identification reported with their pet and suggests the need to consider pets in planning and delivery of mental health care.”
  • This may make such a person reluctant to seek for another pet.

2. Cost of Dog Care

  • People who undergo a life-changing physical and/or mental circumstance often require service dogs and these dogs can be expensive. This is even more so if the life-changing circumstance prevents the person from working full time.
  • Also, people who had a dog may also find it difficult to care for the pet financially due to the drain that such a condition may put on their finances. About 42% of those with a disability and that have a service dog cited cost as a significant issue.
  • This may lead them to give up their dog to foster care, while those who need a service dog to support them may find it difficult to cope financially.

3. Having to Leave in an Assisted-Living Facility

  • Some life-changing physical and/or mental circumstances such as Alzheimers or schizophrenia or any other severe disease may require the dog owner to pack and go live in an assisted care facility.
  • The facility may also not have room for pets and this may require the person to give up their pet if pets are not supported in the facility.
  • This again leads t an increase of pet in foster care and the associated negative impact of taking dogs to foster care.

4. Unwanted Attention

  • People living with a disability who acquired a dog report receiving increased unwanted attention from strangers as a result of the dog.
  • About 53.7% of people with a disability who have service dogs reported it as a burden when surveyed. A further 81% of those with a disability surveyed also noted that petting from strangers is also a burden to them.
  • This may prevent such people from leaving their home frequently or walking their dog to avoid unwanted attention.

5. Travel Arrangement Difficulties

  • Making travel arrangements for themselves and their dog is often a challenge for people that have undergone a life-changing physical and/or mental evidence.
  • When asked in a survey, about 34% of people with disability who have service dogs reported that making travel arrangements for themselves and their dog is a burden.
  • This may mean that the dog may be left behind to avoid the inconvenience of traveling with it. Such a dog might then be left unattended.

6. Dog Responsibility

  • The responsibility that comes with maintaining a dog is even more difficult for people that have faced a life-changing physical and/or mental challenge.
  • Over 33% of people with a disability who have service dogs reported in a survey that physically maintaining their dog is an issue and 14% said the same about the general responsibility associated with having a dog.
  • This is may result in the dog not getting appropriate care or may even lead to the person giving up the dog.

Medical Conditions or Illnesses, Where Improvement has Been Seen Through Pet Ownership

Pets are a little known magic medicine for many people who have medical conditions. The health benefits associated with owning a pet are significant. There is a considerable amount of research that attempts to explain this phenomenon. Whatever the reason, pets through their unconditional love and companionship, create positive feelings and improve a person’s mood.

1. Mental Health and Pets

  • 74% of adults reported that their mental health improved when they owned a pet. Studies have found that adults are less likely to suffer from depression if they own a pet.
  • Pets can help to minimize the symptoms of poor mental health. They can alleviate a person’s feelings of anxiety, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and social isolation.
  • In a 2016 study, it was found that pets provided emotional support, security, and routine for adults, that had been diagnosed with long-term mental health issues.
  • Spending longer periods with a pet, has been shown to have a positive impact on the mental health of adults with mental health issues.
  • Dogs, in particular, have been shown to understand what their owner is saying. They can interpret body language, tone of voice, and gestures. They can determine their owners’ emotional state when they look into their eyes. Dogs use this information to understand how their owner is feeling and respond accordingly.
  • When owners, play with their dogs, their natural levels dopamine and serotonin increase. This makes them feel calm and relaxed. It also minimizes the symptoms of depression.

2. Cardiac Risk Factors/Heart Disease

  • When faced with a stressful situation, people that own a pet tend to have a lower blood pressure than those that do not.
  • One study found, that within five months of adopting a dog from a shelter, people who had previously had high blood pressures experienced improvements.
  • Cholesterol and triglycerides were found to be lower in those adults that owned pets.
  • One of the reasons pets can have such a positive therapeutic effect on their owner’s health, is the basic human needs for touch and to feel loved. Pets provide their owners with unconditional love, which is reciprocated, so a bond develops, which imparts health benefits for both the pet and the owner.

3. Seizures and Dogs

  • Studies have shown, adults who suffer seizures or epilepsy release chemical transmitters into the air, before having a seizure. These chemicals are undetectable to humans. Dogs can detect and recognize the smell. They can provide a warning to their owner that they are about to have a seizure. This gives the owner time to minimize any risk of harm. The detection accuracy is very high.
  • The ability to sense and warn their owner has been found in dogs, that have no seizure alert training. These dogs will exhibit seizure alerting behavior, which is the same as attention-seeking behavior. Owners living with dogs that have this ability, tend to experience an increase in quality of life and a reduction in seizures.
  • Dogs have a unique relationship with their owners. The interactions between a dog and owner can facilitate the development of certain social and cognitive skills in the dog. This means the dog can better understand their owners’ behavior and contributes to their ability to detect seizures.

4. Dementia and Pets

  • For people with dementia, pets can alleviate symptoms, by just sitting in the presence of their owner. They provide companionship and assist in reducing agitation and anxiety.
  • Interactions and socialization become difficult for those with dementia. When people with dementia own a pet, their interaction and socialization skills around other people, have been shown to improve. There is not clear reason why this happens.
  • Often a pet provides a dementia patient with a window to their previous life. There is an unconditional love between the pet and owner, that withstands the memory loss.

5. Chronic illness and Pets

  • Pet ownership is a prescription for those suffering from a chronic illness. Owning a pet has been shown to relieve pain and elevate mood in those with chronic illness.
  • Many studies have considered the impact of a pet on someone with chronic illness. One study considered the impact of pets on AIDS patients. It found there was less depression observed in those that had a pet, compared to those that did not.
  • Another study found, fibromyalgia patients that spent time with a dog in the waiting room at a pain management clinic, showed less distress, improved mood, and were less likely to complain of pain.
  • The strong evidence of health-related benefits, due to the interactions between chronically ill people and pets, has led to several organizations offering this opportunity. Paws for Comfort is an example of an organization of this nature.
  • For someone with a chronic illness, a pet offers a number of things that can bring stability to their lives. These include unconditional love, responsibility, activity, routine, and companionship.

Research Strategy

We reviewed a range of medical articles and publications to determine five medical conditions or illnesses, where improvement has been seen through pet ownership. The conditions we selected are all relatively common. Once we had selected the five medical conditions, we researched the impact of pet ownership on each particular disease. We did this by reviewing a range of medical publications, the literature, and resources provided by the support/community groups associated with each condition, and a range of academic studies investigating the health benefits of pets. We were able to identify several insights in respect to each medical condition.

Two of the articles, used as sources, fall just outside of the last two years. These articles contain the most up to date information for dementia and chronic illness, and the impact of a pet. Although other articles have been written after these dates, they do not contain relevant details.

Glenn is the Lead Operations Research Analyst at The Digital Momentum with experience in research, statistical data analysis and interview techniques. A holder of degree in Economics. A true specialist in quantitative and qualitative research.

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