Pet dogs have prevented more than 100,000 people with autism from taking their own lives, according to a new study.
Scientists from the University of Lincoln studied the relationship between people who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and their pet dog.
A total of 36 autistic dog owners were recruited for the study and quizzed on their relationship with their canine pet as well as how it impacted their mental wellbeing.
Six of the people in the study (16.7 per cent) said their dogs prevented them from ending their own lives. Around one in 100 people in the UK have autism, and a quarter of all adults own a dog.
Based on these assumptions, dog ownership would be responsible for preventing around 135,000 suicides among autistic adults in the UK alone, the researchers state in their study, published today in Scientific Reports.
Prof Daniel Mills, co-author of the study from the University of Lincoln, told The Telegraph: “If, and it’s a big if, that this study is representative, then dogs owned by autistic people in the UK are responsible for saving tens of thousands of lives in that community and it’s never been picked up before.”
The research team, which included visiting professor and TV personality Chris Packham, found close dog-owner interactions (cuddling, walking, being in the dog’s presence etc) were the activities most often linked to improving a person’s mood.
“Obviously, people with autism, a lot of them struggle to make close social relationships and a dog is not going to let you down or betray you and that is something a lot of people find comforting in a time when everybody feels very insecure,” Prof Mills said.
“I think the company is a big thing for them. Just the dog being there helps people.
“In the case of autism, although these people might struggle with social relationships, that doesn’t mean they’re not lonely.”
Prof Mills has spent his career looking at the impact of dogs on humans and believes the relationship between a person and man’s best friend is more impactful for those with autism.
Ana Maria Barcelos, a PhD student at the university, led the research and told The Telegraph: “Around 17 per cent of our participants were thinking about suicide and because of the dog, they did not attempt suicide; they stopped themselves because of the dog.”
She added that the autistic dog owners felt it “wouldn’t be fair” of them to end their life and leave the dog behind because their pet loves them and they feel a sense of responsibility to look after the animal.
“They’re really concerned about the welfare of the dog and they feel loved by the dogs so they don’t want to break that bond somehow,” she said.
There was no impact of dog age or breed on its influence on a person’s happiness, the scientists say, as it was the indefatigable affection of which all dogs are capable of which seems to be the most pivotal factor.
“Dogs are not just pets, they could really help your mental and physical health,” Ms Barcelos said.
“For the general population of dog owners, the presence of the dog is very nice and they really enjoy it. But for autistic owners, the simple presence of the dog seems to enable them to do things they would not do otherwise.
“Many people told me: “I only go to the supermarket because I have my dog” or “I only leave my house during the pandemic because of my dog” so there are many things autistic people would not do without their dogs.
“I think it’s because they feel more confident with the dog next to them.”
The researchers are now hoping to build on the findings and perform a quantitative, two-year project but need to secure funding first. They believe their research could have real-world implications and reduce the rate of suicide in people with autism.
But while 80 per cent of interactions between an autistic person and their dog were positive, the researchers caution there can be a downside if the partnership fails.
“If a dog has a lot of behavior problems, or if the dog is old and has some disease, these things can be very negative for the owner. But most times [the dog-owner] is very positive,” said Ms Barcelos.
“I’m not saying that everybody with autism should get themselves a dog. That’s not what we’re saying because if the relationship doesn’t work, they take it so much harder it seems,” Prof Mills added.