Psychological Benefits of Pet Ownership

Psychological Benefits of Pet Ownership

According to the American Pet Product Association (2011), 62% of American households own a pet with yearly spending exceeding $45 billion. There are approximately 77 million dogs and 93 millions cats in the country, clearly indicating that pets are both ubiquitous and important in people’s lives.

Moreover, it is commonly assumed that pets play a significant social role in their owner’s lives and that a dog or cat can alleviate social isolation. Although pets can provide their owners with many direct, material benefits (scaring away burglars, reducing a vermin problem, etc.), there is also some evidence that pets can have positive psychological effects on people as well. 

Research shows that of people who have had a heart attack in the past year, pet owners were less likely to die within the next year compared to those who do not own a pet (1% vs. 7% respectively) (Friedman & Thomas, 1995). Medicare patients with pets had fewer physician visits than patients without pets (Siegel, 1990) and HIV-positive men reported less depression than similar men without pets (Siegel, Angulo, Detels, Wesch, & Mullen, 1999). Another study found that people with severe physical disabilities (e.g.: traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury) who were given a service dog showed improvements in their well-being (e.g.: self-esteem, locus of control) within 6 months while the wait-listed control group did not.

One reason why people might benefit from pet ownership is that pets may represent a source of social support and numerous studies demonstrate that increased social support leads to improved psychological and physical health (e.g.: Uchino, Cacioppo, & Kiecolt-Glaser, 1996). Furthermore, greater social support also improves cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune functioning (Uchino et al., 1996) while poorer social support increases mortality rates (House et al., 1988). 

Many owners consider their pets to be “close others” in their lives. 50% of pet owners view their pet “as much a part of the family as any other person in the household”, 30% report that their pet sleeps in their bed with them, and 25% claim that their pet is a better listener than their spouse (Associated Press, 2009, 2010). 

It is clear from numerous studies that psychologically close others can improve one’s happiness and well-being, while feeling socially isolated or excluded from others can have negative consequences (Williams, 2007). So, if pets are like close others to their owners, they may provide psychological benefits to the owner just like a close person would.

Recent Studies

Three recent studies aimed to find out how and why pet ownership benefits people psychologically. These are their findings:

Everyday people enjoy well-being benefits from pet ownership and these advantages are stronger when the pet also fulfills the owners’ social needs. 

  • Pet owners often experience greater well-being, self-esteem, and exhibit healthier personality characteristics (e.g.: conscientiousness) and show more positive attachment styles (i.e.: less fearful, less preoccupied).
  • Pets that fulfilled their owners’ social needs better were related to less depression, less loneliness, greater self-esteem, and greater happiness in their owners. These benefits were independent of the owner’s human social resources.
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  • People who derive great benefits from their pets are also closer to other important people in their lives and receive more support from them, not less. This is also known as the complement hypothesis – pets complement other forms of social support rather than compete with them. Pets do not serve as surrogates when other sources of social support are deficient, they serve as additional support.
  • Not surprisingly, pets with healthier personalities (e.g.: dogs that are less fearful, more active and less aggressive towards people and other dogs) fulfill their owners’ social needs better.
  • In an interesting experiment, some pet owners were deliberately induced to feel lonely and isolated socially. Those participants who thought about their pet following the rejection did not experience reduced social needs fulfillment. In fact, thinking about one’s pet proved just as effective at mitigating the negativity resulting from social rejection as thinking about one’s best friend. 

 

Summary

It has been widely known and accepted that pet ownership has many benefits for people both psychologically and physically. Owning a pet can mean experiencing unconditional love, companionship and social connectedness. These recent studies have further confirmed pets’ role in serving to fulfill their owners’ social needs. Loneliness and social rejection are painful human experiences (MacDonald & Leary, 2005). Sometimes one’s friends and family cannot be present to provide immediate comfort (and sometimes they may be the source of the discomfort to begin with). In order to satisfy their social needs, lonely and rejected individuals may look at photos of loved ones, recall memories of social interactions, watch television, and sing or talk to themselves (Derrick et al., 2009). Recent research suggests that pets can also contribute to the fulfillment of social needs independently of one’s human social support and predict higher levels of well-being overall. These benefits are not only true for those facing significant life stressors or physical and mental problems, but are generalized for non-clinical populations an everyday people as well.

Psychological Benefits of Pet Ownership References

McConnell, A.R., Brown, C.M., Shoda, T.M., Stayton, L.E., & Martin, C.E. (2011). Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 1239-1252.

American Pet Products Association. (2011). APPA national pet owners survey 2011–2012. Retrieved from http://www.americanpetproducts.org.http://www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp 

Friedmann, E., & Thomas, S. A. (1995). Pet ownership, social support, and one-year survival after acute myocardial infarction in the Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial (CAST). The American Journal of Cardiology, 76, 1213–1217.

Siegel, J. M. (1990). Stressful life events and use of physician services among the elderly: The moderating role of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 1081–1086. 

Siegel, J. M., Angulo, F. J., Detels, R., Wesch, J., & Mullen, A. (1999). AIDS diagnosis and depression in the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study: The ameliorating impact of pet ownership. AIDS Care, 11, 157–170. 

Uchino, B. N., Cacioppo, J. T., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (1996). The relationship between social support and physiological processes: A review with emphasis on underlying mechanisms and implications for health. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 488–531. 

House, J. S., Landis, K. R., & Umberson, D. (1988, July 29). Social relationships and health. Science, 241, 540–545. 

Associated Press. (2009, June 23). The AP-Petside.com poll. Retrieved from http://surveys.ap.org 

Associated Press (2010, April 28). The AP-Petside.com poll. Retrieved from http://surveys.ap.org 

Williams, K. D. (2007). Ostracism. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 425–452. 

MacDonald, G., & Leary, M. R. (2005). Why does social exclusion hurt? The relationship between social and physical pain. Psychological Bulletin, 131, 202–223. 

Derrick, J. L., Gabriel, S., & Hugenberg, K. (2009). Social surrogacy: How favored television programs provide the experience of belonging. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 352–362.