Easter/Spring special: can pets help with long term conditions?

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Spring and Easter is the time when thoughts turn to our furry, feathered and woolly friends. Everywhere we go (yes even in city farms, for erstwhile urban elves), there are chicks, lambs and baby bunnies bouncing and chirping about. The online world is no exception. When internet creator Tim Berners-Lee was asked the one thing he never imagined his invention would be used for, he replied: ‘Kittens’. So it’s no surprise that the animal-loving British find pets supportive when they experience ill-health or are living with an impairment or long term condition.

Despite the fact that animals figure highly in many aspects of life, from the internet to seasonal festivals, health and social care research does not always pay attention to the type and quality of relationships disabled people, carers or those with long term conditions have with their pets.

This qualitative study by Ryan and Ziebland (2015) aimed to give both insight into how pets feature in the narratives of people with long term conditions and into how researchers may, or may not, pick up on the importance of relationships with animals during the interview process.

Tim Berners-Lee contemplates the sheer number of kittens on the internet.

Tim Berners-Lee contemplates the sheer number of kittens on the internet.

Method

The authors undertook a secondary analysis of 61 in-depth videoed interviews from a larger collection of 231 interviews about patient experience. Interviews involved people with Parkinson’s disease, autism, heart failure or stroke and carers of people with dementia or multiple sclerosis. The original interviews explored people’s experiences of living with, or caring for someone with, a long term condition (University of Oxford, no date).

For this secondary analysis, a sub sample of 61 interviews were examined to assess the place of pets in people’s accounts of their health or caring experiences.

The authors looked at the place of pets in people's experience and narratives of illness or caring.

The authors looked at the place of pets in people’s experience and narratives of illness or caring.

Findings

The authors came up with two types of finding. One was about how the researchers carrying out the interviews responded to the presence of a pet during the interview or in the person’s account. The other was about the role of pets for some people managing, or caring for someone with, a long term condition.

Generally, the topic of pets was brought up spontaneously by the participants but many researchers did not pursue it. Sometimes pets came into the room or made noise during the interview and this was recorded as an ‘interruption’ and often the pet was removed. However, when the researcher did encourage the participant to talk about their pet, additional, rich data was obtained.

'Don't leave me out!'

‘Don’t leave me out!’

The data obtained through the secondary analysis of the place of pets in the participants’ health narratives revealed several important points about the perception and role of pets in relation to managing long term conditions or caring for a person with one.

Animals (particularly dogs) were often positioned as family members or ‘social actors’ in people’s stories and often appeared in accounts of crisis or episodes of acute illness. Pets were ‘central to the social and emotional’ components of the recounted experience and its interpretation.

Many participants expressed positive experiences of pets in their illness narratives. These included

  • help for getting them out of the house, getting physical exercise or for monitoring their health
  • providing structure and a daily routine
  • companionship and access to social interaction and friendship (particularly through dog walking)
  • unique support through bereavement or for pain management
  • communication and companionship to relieve social isolation for people with autism.

Overall, the authors found that in interviews participants

described their pets as the motivating force for returning home, getting out and exercising, and as important companions in their everyday lives.

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Pets can help people to manage their health and interpret or recount their experiences but researchers might not pick this up in interviews.

Conclusion

The authors conclude that their findings demonstrate

the multifaceted nature of people’s relationships with pets, and the embedded and embodied ways in which human-nonhuman interactions are played out in narratives of chronic illness.

Summing up

This study offers further understanding into how pets can help people to manage long term conditions or caring responsibilities and interpret or recount their experiences. However, it also suggests that researchers conducting interviews may exclude or fail to follow up participant cues about pets in their narratives.

There are some limitations in that we don’t have a real idea of the profile of the 61 participants, so their gender, age, ethnicity and so on. This information was presumably available and would have been useful for exploring the findings further. It would also have been interesting to have some further analysis of the different researcher interview techniques and skills, with some additional comment on how this type of qualitative research is best conducted so that the participant’s full narrative, with all actors, including pets, is enabled in the interview process.

Findings suggest that researchers and social care workers doing assessment and care planning should be sensitive to the role of pets for people living with long term conditions, as they can be seen as social actors in the person’s narrative as well as having important roles in managing illness, impairment or caring responsibilities.

Including pets can result in extra goodies.

Including pets can result in extra goodies for everyone.

Link

Ryan, S. & Ziebland S. (2015) On interviewing people with pets: reflections from qualitative research on people with long-term conditions Sociology of Health & Illness 37 (1) pp.67–80 [Full Text]

References

University of Oxford (no date) Healthtalk Online.

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Sarah Carr

Sarah Carr

Sarah is Associate Professor of Mental Health Research at Middlesex University. Sarah also runs an independent mental health and social care knowledge consultancy. She has a background as a senior research and policy analyst in mental health and social care, with a focus on service user participation, personalisation and equality issues, having formerly worked for the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE). She is an Honorary Senior Lecturer at Institute for Applied Social Science at the University of Birmingham, an Honorary Visiting Fellow, Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Co-chair of the National Survivor and User Network (NSUN) and a member of the editorial boards of the journals Disability and Society and Lancet Psychiatry, Sarah has a particular interest in social care and mental health issues and is a long term user of services.

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