For the matter of this study, a total of 36 autistic dog owners were recruited. They were asked questions about their relationship with their pet and how it impacted on their mental wellbeing. Six of the people in the study said that their dogs had prevented them from ending their own lives.
What did the study reveal?
Around one in 100 people in the UK have autism and a quarter of all adults own a dog.
Based on these assumptions, having a dog would have prevented around 135,000 suicides among autistic adults in the UK alone, the researchers say in their study, published in Scientific Reports.
Professor Daniel Mills, co-author of the study from the University of Lincoln, told The Telegraph newspaper, "If, and it's a big if, this study can be considered representative, then dogs owned by people with autism in the UK are responsible for saving tens of thousands of lives in that community of people and it's never come up before."
Professor Mills continues: “Obviously, people with autism struggle to form close social relationships and a dog doesn't disappoint or betray those expectations and that's something that many people find comforting at a time when everyone feels very insecure."
The research team, as well as TV personality Chris Packham, discovered that close interactions with a dog, like cuddling, walking, being in the presence of the dog, etc. were activities that most of the time improves a person’s mood. And we couldn’t agree more with that! It’s hard not to feel happy around our four legged friends.
Around 17% of participants had thought about comitting suicide
Ana Maria Barcelos, a PhD student at the University of Lincoln revealed that 17% of participants had thought about suicide and thanks to their dog, they didn’t attempt to do it. She adds: “Autistic people who owned a dog felt that it wouldn’t be right for their dog to end their lives and leave the dog behind because their pet loves them and they feel a sense of responsibility in caring for the animal.”
For people who own dogs, the presence of the animal is very pleasant and brings happiness, explains Dr Barcelos. "But for autistic owners, the mere presence of the dog seems to allow them to do things they would not otherwise do. Many people have told me: 'I go to the supermarket just because I have my dog' or 'I leave the house during the pandemic because of my dog', so there are many things that autistic people would not do without their four-legged friends. I think it's because they feel safer with the dog next to them."
What are the next steps?
Researchers now hope to build on the findings and run a two-year quantitative project, but first they need to secure funding. They believe their research could have real-world implications and reduce the suicide rate in people with autism.
But while 80% of interactions between an autistic person and their dog have been positive, the researchers warn that there may be a downside if the bond fails: 'If a dog has a lot of behavioural problems, or if it is old and has some disease, these issues could have very negative consequences for the owner,' Professor Mills explains. “I'm not saying that all autistic people should get a dog. That's not what we're saying: if the relationship doesn't work, it seems that the negative effects can be very severe.”
Many studies have shown the positive impact dogs have on people’s health. Yes, they are our health partner, our social and emotional support and we just love them so much!