Network placement and attributional meaning of pets
Of the 25 participants who identified a pet within the personal communities associated with the management of mental health and everyday life, the majority (60 %, n = 15) placed their pet in the central most important circle. A further 20 % (n = 5) placed their pet in the second circle and 12 % (n = 3) placed their pet in the third circle. The remaining 8 % (n = 2) whilst identifying a pet within their social network did not place them in one of the three concentric circles. Figure 1 details the network diagram completed by ID 2. This male participant had a relatively small network (n = 6) in which his pet birds were placed in the central, most important circle. The only human members of his network were his Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN) and support worker whom he saw infrequently, highlighting the importance of his pets for the management of his mental health.
Examples of animals cited as relevant to the management of mental health included family pets, working animals and more peripheral links to animals in the wider community in places such as urban farms and animal rescue centres. The prominence and salience of animals within an individual’s personal community network varied. Some individuals had networks dominated by pets, coined ‘pet centric’ networks, which provided a range of direct and indirect benefits, whilst others had one animal positioned in a fairly peripheral position within the network (Appendix 2). It was often the case that where relationships with family and friends were seen to be good, animal-human relationships were perceived to be of secondary importance. However, the majority of people reported either having difficult relationships with other network members including friends and family or had little or limited other network support in addition to their pets. For these people, the relationships with companion animals took on discrete and definite functions within networks, which were different to the norms associated with human-to-human relationships. These appeared to centre on the receipt of ontological security not available from elsewhere, as well as physical proximity and consistency when compared to the other relationships.
So with my pets I suppose although my Mum and Dad are very significant figures they’ve also got their own lives and lots of other things going on so I’m only one aspect of that life and I feel that the pets I suppose they depend on me and also I have daily contact with them and they also give me a sense of wellbeing which I don’t get from any [one else] because most of these interactions with my Mum, Dad, [friend], are all by telephone rather than physical contact and that’s the big difference is the empathetic physical presence. (ID 21, 10 birds, first circle)
Relational work and substitution
Relational work has been used to describe the tasks that are required to develop and sustain interpersonal relationships . A core theme that arose from the data during narratives was the attributional meaning of relationships with pets. Some invested energy in a singular focus on a preferred pet. For those without close friends and family, the intensive and positive identification associated with their pets made for intense, intimate relationships ‘the relationship with my cat was the only thing that stayed constant’ (ID 7, one cat, second circle). Individuals often saw their pet most frequently and for some, they were their only source of support. In this way, pets featured highly in the network hierarchy and were linked to dependency and substitutability of other, often absent network members providing or replacing ontological security from other sources.
Well I just love animals, I just really do love animals. I haven’t got a partner so I have something around me otherwise I’d go totally bonkers. That’s the most important thing to me is my animals (ID 13, range of pets, first circle).
Participants described the various, nuanced ways that pets connected them to others in, and beyond, their personal networks or to the wider social environment. Participants described new relationships with network members or community organisations as a result of pet ownership, as well as enhanced ones with existing network members.
That surprised me, you know, the amount of people that stop and talk to him, and that, yeah, it cheers me up with him. I haven’t got much in my life, but he’s quite good, yeah (ID 9, 1 dog, first circle).
For participants in this study, the connection an individual felt with their pet was seemingly of relatively more salience when compared to studies of other long-term conditions . Linked to ontological security, participants spoke in depth about the connection they felt with their pet, which was often not replicated in their relationships with friends and family, either because they had no human network members or existing relationships were difficult.
If I didn’t have my pets I think I would be on my own…You know what I mean, so it’s…it’s nice to come home and, you know, listen to the birds singing and that, you know (ID 2, 2 birds, first circle).
I felt in a sense that my cat was my familiar in that he understood or was an extension of my thoughts (ID 7, 1 cat, second circle).
These limited or difficult connections with others were often perceived to have come about from what participants referred to as a ‘gulf in understanding’ between themselves and the other humans in their network. Participants felt that in order to have a beneficial relationship with friends and family, there needed to be a shared understanding of their mental health condition, which was problematic to obtain without direct experience and in the absence of similar value judgements or thwarted expectations. Pets, on the other hand were credited with either having an understanding of their owners’ mental health problems without the need for this to be communicated, or as being a network member with whom they could have an adequate relationship without this pre-requisite level of understanding.
I think it's hard really when you haven't had mental illness to know what the actual experience is for someone who has had the experience. There's like a chasm, deep chasm between us - a growing canyon. They're on one side of it and we're on the other side of it. We're sending smoke signals to each other to try and understand each other but we don't always - we don't always understand each other I don't think. (ID 1, 1 cat, first circle).
One important component of the relationship with pets was a sense of enduring trust between individuals and their companion animal, which enhanced the value of pets when compared with humans. Often, participants described fractured relationships with friends and family that had occurred due to past behaviour on their part attributed to mental illness, which had caused existing relationships to strain or to break down. Participants also worried about upsetting the humans in their networks. It was considered that pets, on the other hand, were not subject to these sensitivities and thus possessed the capacity to form more enduring and secure relationships. People talked about pets still being there however they were treated and compared this directly to relationships with friends and family. In this way, pets served to provide a unique form of validation through unconditional support, which was often not forthcoming from other network relationships.
Er, there’s a lot less things to worry about. I mean you can’t…you can’t like be like if he was naughty or anything like that you’d tell him off and that was it and there’d be no hard feelings. That there’s not, you don’t get the nastiness (ID 11, 1 dog, third circle).
Alternatively, participants provided examples of friends and family not having been a helpful or useful source of support in difficult times, which meant they were reluctant to trust or to rely on them to provide this in the future. Additionally, participants alluded to a general distrust of people attributable to a sense of vulnerability attached to mental illness. These concerns became heightened during times of acute mental health crises.
Yes, they can give you loving, pets can and you can trust pets not to steal off you (ID 6, 1 guinea pig, first circle).
Frequently, participants expressed the view of wanting to avoid the world when acutely unwell, whilst at the same time acknowledging that this was sometimes a direct barrier to recovery. Pets provided participants with a mechanism for engagement with the social world through having to care for their animals no matter how they felt. This sense of purpose was considered fundamental to a sense of wellbeing and recovery and demarcated the support provided by pets from that given by other network members, which was often considered conditional on moment-to-moment changes in a person’s mental health status (e.g. only seeing friends when feeling well enough).
You know, so in terms of mental health, when you just want to sink into a pit and just sort of retreat from the entire world, they force me, the cats force me to sort of still be involved with the world (ID 5, 2 cats, first circle).
Balancing of emotional, illness and biographical pet work
Negative work and burden
In a small number of instances, negative aspects to pet ownership surfaced. These ‘deviant’ cases included narratives related to the burden of looking after pets, pets as a source of anxiety and the acknowledged or anticipated distress when loved companion animals died. Additionally, whilst pets were identified as a valuable source of support in times of crisis, one participant talked about her pets blocking the achievement of aspirational goals associated with recovery, such as travel. For one participant, since becoming unwell her pets had lost all their beneficial elements.
Yes the only thing is my future plans revolve around saving up as much money as possible and travelling for as many years as possible which means dogs and cats that I’ve got I won’t be able to keep so (ID 14, 2 dogs and 2 cats, first circle).
Emotional and illness work
When participants talked about the work that their pets did to support them in managing their mental health on a day-to-day basis, narratives about illness and emotional work were conflated at times. Unsurprisingly, pets were rarely implicated in everyday practical work (such as house work) but were considered important in relation to illness-related practical work and emotional work.
Given the consistency of presence and a close physical proximity, pets constituted an instantaneous source of calming, therapeutic benefit for their owners. Pets were a source of physical contact and comfort and a way for individuals to channel their own emotional energy often not available elsewhere.
Yes, you get comfort from them, because they lick you and all that, and they knead you with their claws and purr at you and all that, so yes, they’re lovely (ID 8, 2 cats, first circle).
The network benefits associated with pets could be direct or experienced indirectly via pets owned by other people, but whose benefits were transmitted. Pets owned by others in the network could provide solace and support that some participants could not source themselves within their own network. There was also a sense that animals were imbued with intuition for when their owners were feeling unwell to which they behaved accordingly.
When I’m feeling really low they are wonderful because they won’t leave my side for two days. I will get up and I will let them out to the toilet and I will feed them but I am straight back in bed and I won’t even get myself any food or water and then they’ll just come straight back up and just stay with me until I’m ready to come out of it. They are used to it I suppose (ID 14, 2 dogs and 2 cats, first circle).
One element of the intimate relationship with pets was their input as a source of practical illness work, notably in relation to distraction and disruption from negative feelings, emotions and untoward symptoms. This finding indicates a therapeutic role beyond that found previously for other long-term conditions. For example, pets could distract their owners from positive symptoms of schizophrenia such as hearing voices, from suicidal ideation or from a general sense of feeling alone.
But if I’m here and I’m having…having problems with voices and that, erm, it does help me in the sense, you know, I’m not thinking about the voices, I’m just thinking of when I hear the birds singing (ID 2, 2 birds, first circle).
Pets often introduced a source of humour into difficult situations and were often the only thing that could lift participants’ spirits.
She, sort of, does random stuff, like climbs on the bars and… stuff [laugh] and things [which distract me] and it’s quite funny watching her what she does because she’s not like a normal hamster (ID 3, 1 hamster, second circle).
Given this attributed function of distraction and disruption, pets were particularly beneficial in crisis situations. In comparison with other relationships within their network, pets were considered as an omnipotent and constant presence so people could rely on this source of distraction and unconditional support.
I mean I could always go out, take him out of his, er, hutch, give him a stroke or something [if I needed to] (ID 3, 1 hamster, second circle).
Pets were reported to be important in relation to biographical work given their assistance in managing the stigma associated with the diagnosis and experience of mental illness and by providing ontological security. They also provided self-validation both through their relationship with their owner but also because of a perception that they mediated how other people viewed them.
Pets were identified as having a role in providing routine for their owners. For some, pets encouraged exercise and for others their pets were the only reason they got out of bed in the morning. Through the rituals of feeding, exercise, grooming and caring for their pet a sense of consistent daily routine became embedded in their lives, which participants felt was vital for their wellbeing.
And I just try and make sure that I walk him, and that, in the mornings….but sometimes I can’t be bothered to do that, but then I think….I..I think about, you know, that it’s not fair if he doesn’t go (ID 11, 1 dog, third circle).
Participants reported experiencing high levels of felt and enacted stigma related to their diagnosis - even from friends and family. Pets were relevant to an individual’s construction of self and played a unique role in the reduction and management of stigma. For example, pets were seen to accept people for who they were without judgement or resentment. This form of ‘unconditional love’ was an important element of the human-pet dyad, which became increasingly valuable given the vagaries of living with a mental illness.
And everybody that finds out that you’ve got a mental health problem they will think you’re, you know, off your head and you’re not (ID 2, 2 birds, first circle).
Participants described how pets (in comparison to human relationships) understood boundaries and knew intuitively when to leave them alone. There was a perception that pets did not hold past behaviours against them and accepted them for who they were. Friends and family members however, often as a result of past behaviours including suicide attempts, overstepped boundaries and made intrusions into their lives that were often not welcomed by the participants included in this study.
They [pets] don’t look at the scars on your arms, or they don’t question things, and they don’t question where you’ve been (ID 12, 1 dog, first circle).
Participants reported feeling negatively experienced pressure from friends and family members. This included a perception that friends and family could ask too much of them and pressurise them to recover when they did not feel able to. Having friends and family members rely on them or to ask them for help could be challenging for participants, especially when they were feeling acutely unwell. Complicated dynamics between people in their network could also be stressful to cope with. Relationships with pets were altogether a more simple affair, and they asked very little of each other.
Well, you know, apart from being fed, they don’t make many demands (ID 10, 2 cats, first circle).
Others discussed similarities with their pets in relation to their mental health condition (e.g. budgie also having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)), which may indicate that this identification could be used by participants as a way of managing their own conditions. At the very least, this identification meant that participants did not feel alone in their experiences. Pets were passive recipients of these characteristics, which were projected freely on to them by individuals in a way that appeared to fulfil a specific need to do so.
I love budgies and every budgie I’ve had I’ve always managed to get it into a position where it will sit on my shoulder and at the moment I’m just training this one because I’m sure he’s got PTSD from living with [friend’s] nan because she used to just chuck things at him in the cage so that’s why the home said we had to get rid of the bird because she wasn’t leaving the room and consequently we took the bird and she’s getting better in the home she’s in. I look after that bird every day, I wake him up, I sit with him and in the evening I’ll sit for a good hour playing with him on his cage or in his cage. (ID 15, Budgie and goldfish, second circle).
Reciprocity embedded in relationships with pets demarcated such relationships from human ones, which were often not considered reciprocal.
When he comes and sits up beside you on a night, it’s different, you know, it’s just, like, he needs me as much as I need him, sort of thing. (ID 9, 1 dog, first circle).
The hidden work of pets
Successfully caring for a pet could provide a source of validation. Pet owners talked about the pride associated with having a pet that was seen to be well loved and cared for. Given the high levels of unemployment and isolation within the sample, participants had limited other opportunities to develop this form of validation. One participant’s love of animals had led her to the local city farm where she volunteered, which impacted on her confidence. Often, the physical connection with pets was enhanced through mastery such as teaching an animal tricks. Through these relationships with their pets, participants could present themselves to others in a more positive light.
I mean it’s just a nice feeling to have somebody around that you can l, like, take care of (ID 3, 1 hamster, second circle).
Despite this perceived value attributed to illness work, pets were unanimously neither incorporated into participants’ discussions with health service providers nor into mental health care planning. Our data indicates that the work undertaken by pets has little salience to those in positions of power in relation to decision making and service provision within health services. Most participants, however, could see the benefit of incorporating pets into these discussions through the development of an holistic understanding of the individual and the production of more relevant and useful care plans.
Kind of, knowing about your cats and your friends and your family would feed into them knowing you and understanding you a bit better, and…Which would, in turn, feed into how useful the care plan could be. (ID 5, 2 cats, first circle).