The Truth About Cats and Dogs: Pets Are Good for Mental Health of ‘Everyday People’

Pets can be significant sources of emotional and social help to “everyday people,” not only people facing severe health issues, according to research conducted by the American Psychological Association.

The study found pet owners were as connected to important people in their life as they were to their pets. This suggests there is no evidence that the relationship with pets was at the loss of friendships with others or that people depended more heavily on pets when human companionship was less.

Psychologists from Miami University and Saint Louis University conducted three studies to study the possible advantages of having pets within the context of what they call regular people. The current study’s findings are published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (r), published online by APA.

“We observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than non-owners on several dimensions,” stated lead research scientist Allen R. McConnell, Ph.D. from Miami University in Ohio. “Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.”

Up to now, most research on the advantages of pets has been based on correlation which means it looked at the relationships between two variables but didn’t prove that one was responsible for the other. For instance, previous studies showed that Medicare pet owners received fewer visits to the doctor than comparable patients without pets, and HIV-positive males who had pets were less depressed than men who did not.

The study found that 217 participants (79 percent women, average age 31, median annual household income $77,000) completed surveys to determine if pet owners in the group differed from those who didn’t have pets regarding well-being, personality type, and attachment styles. A variety of distinctions between the groups were discovered, and, in all instances, the pet owners were healthier, happier, and more relaxed than non-owners.

Another study, which involved 56 pet owners (91 percent were women, with a median age of 42 and average annual household earnings of $655,000), investigated the extent to which pet owners are better off if their pet is believed to meet their needs in social situations more effectively. The study showed higher levels of well-being among pet owners who had their dogs increase their sense of belonging, self-esteem, and the importance of their lives.

The study conducted last year, which involved undergraduates from 97 aged 19 and above, discovered that pets can help people feel more comfortable when they experience rejection. Participants had to record a moment when they felt unwelcome. They were then requested to record their most beloved pet, write about their most precious person, or sketch an outline that showed their college. The study discovered it was as beneficial as writing about friends in terms of warding away feelings of rejection.

“[T]he present work presents considerable evidence that pets benefit the lives of their owners, both psychologically and physically, by serving as an important source of social support,” the researchers have written. “Whereas past work has focused primarily on pet owners facing significant health challenges … the present study establishes that there are many positive consequences for everyday people who own pets.”

Article: “Friends With Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership,” Allen R. McConnell, Ph.D., Miami University; Christina M. Brown, Ph.D., Saint Louis University; Tonya M. Shoda, MA, Laura E. Stayton, B.A., and Colleen E. Martin, B.A., Miami University; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 101, No. 6.

Dr. McConnell can be reached by Email or (513) 529-2407.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the world’s largest professional and scientific association representing psychologists within the United States and is the world’s most prestigious association of psychologists. The membership of APA includes over 154,000 educators, researchers, consultants, clinicians, and students. Through its divisions across 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 territorial, state, and Canadian provincial organizations, APA works to advance psychology as a discipline, profession, and method to promote the health of people, their education, and well-being.


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