A dog's life for priest with pup

May 4, 2007

Studies show that keeping a dog as a pet reduces stress and makes people feel good about themselves - unless you're a Roman Catholic priest, it now appears.

Research from the University of Wales, Bangor, and Ulster University has revealed that dogs and dog collars are not a happy combination. In fact, academics have found that a pooch in the presbytery can increase the likelihood of professional burnout in the priesthood.

The findings, which appear in a special issue of the international journal Mental Health, Religion and Culture , fly in the face of existing studies, which show that pet dogs can benefit the owners by lowering their blood pressure, combating depression and improving self-esteem. The study was co-edited by Christopher Lewis, senior lecturer in Ulster's School of Psychology, and Leslie Francis and Douglas Turton, both of the Welsh National Centre for Religious Education at Bangor. They investigated the theory that a pet might be the antidote to the personal and social loneliness of celibate clergy.

But Dr Lewis said: "Contrary to expectation, no psychological benefit accrued from owning a cat, while owning a dog was associated with statistically significant increases in two aspects of professional burnout - emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation."

Professor Francis, director of the Bangor centre and professor of practical theology, said the findings, based on a survey of almost 1,500 priests in England and Wales, showed how stressed the clergy were.

"For many people, companion animals help them to unwind after the day's work. Many clergy, however, are now so severely overworked that they simply do not have time for prayer, rest and relaxation."

Clergy did not benefit from the presence of a cat, but at least cats did not place extra demands on their owners, Professor Francis said. But walking, feeding and caring for a dog could prove the final straw for many priests.

Professor Francis carried out the research with academic colleagues Mr Turton, a retired Anglican priest, and Stephen Louden, a Catholic priest.

More research is planned on the clergy in other denominations, with male and female Anglican priests being surveyed.

Dr Lewis said: "Clergy are often seen as one of the last professions that could suffer from work-related stress. Unfortunately, this couldn't be further from the truth."

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