Among those with health problems, animals are widely used to aid emotional well-being and augment physical rehabilitation. It turns out they are an important source of social and emotional support for regular folks as well.
Psychologists from two college campuses conducted three experiments to examine the potential benefits of pet ownership among what they called everyday people.
“We observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than non-owners on several dimensions,” said lead researcher Allen R. McConnell, PhD, of 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.”
Researchers also found that pet owners were just as close to key people in their lives as to their animals, indicating that relationships with pets did not come at the expense of relationships with other people.
Researchers administered a survey to 217 individuals (79 percent female) with an average age of 31. Questions were aimed to determine if 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.
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 a second experiment involving 56 dog owners (91 percent of whom were women, with a mean age of 42), survey questions were designed to determine whether pet owners benefit more when their pet is perceived to fulfill their social needs.
Again, researchers discovered a greater well-being among owners whose dogs increased their feelings of belonging, self-esteem and meaningful existence.
A final study of 97 college undergraduates with an average age of 19 found that pets can make people feel better after experiencing rejection.
In this experiment, subjects were asked to write about a time when they felt excluded. Then they were asked to write about their favorite pet, or to write about their favorite friend, or to draw a map of their campus.
Among this group, investigators learned that writing about pets was just as effective as writing about a friend when it came to staving off 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 wrote.
“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.”
The results of the current study were reported online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.