Thinking about pets provides the same boost as thinking about friends


New research points to major psychological benefits among pet owners.

Veterinarians don't need to be told that pets make people feel better, but a new study from the American Psychological Association has confirmed it. Pets serve as important sources of social and emotional support for everyone, not just people facing significant health challenges.

The study found that pet owners were just as close to key people in their lives as to their animals. There is no evidence that relationships with pets came at the expense of relationships with other people, or that people relied more on pets when their human social support was poorer.

Psychologists at Miami University and Saint Louis University conducted three experiments to examine the potential benefits of pet ownership among what they called “everyday people.” The results of the study are reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than non-owners on several levels. Specifically, pet owners, compared to non-owners, were:

> more confident

> more physically fit

> less lonely

> more conscientious

> more extroverted

> less fearful and

> less preoccupied and distracted.

Until now, most research into the benefits of pets has been correlational, meaning it looked at the relationship between two variables but didn’t show that one caused the other. For example, prior research showed that elderly Medicare patients with pets had fewer doctor visits than similar patients without pets, or that HIV-positive men with pets were less depressed than those without.

In this study, 217 people answered surveys aimed at determining whether pet owners in the group differed from people who didn’t have pets in the areas of well-being, personality type, and attachment style. Several differences between the groups emerged, and in all cases, pet owners were happier, healthier, and better adjusted than were non-owners. A second experiment, involving 56 dog owners, examined whether pet owners benefit more when their pet is perceived to fulfill their social needs better. This study found greater well-being among owners whose dogs increased their feelings of belonging, self-esteem and meaningful existence.

The last study, comprising 97 undergraduates with an average age of 19, found that pets make people feel better after experiencing rejection. Subjects were asked to write about a time when they felt excluded. Then they were asked to write about their favorite pet or their favorite friend, or to draw a map of their campus. The researchers found that writing about pets was just as effective as writing about a friend when it came to staving off feelings of rejection.

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