Is Your Pet Your Best Friend?

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January 29, 2014 | 17,389 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Studies conducted in recent years suggest pets meet our basic emotional needs in much the same way human friends do.
  • A team of researchers from Miami University and Saint Louis University wanted to learn whether pets improve the mental health of “everyday people” – people with ample human relationships who don’t feel isolated from others.
  • The studies revealed that the social satisfaction derived from pets was helpful to their owners regardless of how much support they received from other humans. Pets are beneficial to our well being irrespective of how much interaction with have with other people.
  • The studies also demonstrate that everyday pet owners are just as close to key people in their lives as to their animals, which discredits the notion that close relationships with pets come at the expense of human relationships.

By Dr. Becker

If you think of your canine companion as your best friend, you’re not alone. And recent research suggests pets really do meet our basic psychological needs in much the way human friends do.

A team of researchers from Miami University and Saint Louis University set out to evaluate whether people can really count on their pets to meet their social needs. Can pets help owners feel connected and in control of their lives?

We already know that caring for a pet helps alleviates feelings of loneliness and improves the physical health of senior citizens and also the chronically ill. But the team of Miami and Saint Louis University researchers wanted to learn whether pets enhance the mental health of people who aren’t suffering feelings of isolation from other humans.

Study Shows Family and Friends Are Not a Substitute for Pets

The group was led by Allen McConnell of Miami University, and the three studies they conducted were published in 2011 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. You can read the full article here.

In the first study, the researchers asked groups of pet owners and people without pets questions about their personalities. Based on the responses of the participants, McConnell and his team concluded the pet owners were less lonely, had higher self-esteem, and exercised more than non-pet owners. Of course, what isn’t clear from the study data is whether pets bring out those positive traits, or whether people with those traits are more inclined to have a pet in the first place.

In study number two, the researchers looked more closely at dog owners. Using standard psychological measures of social needs fulfillment, they found that dogs did indeed help their owners feel socially content, with the result that the owners felt better about life in general.

Even more fascinating was that the social satisfaction derived from pets was helpful to their owners regardless of how much support they received from other humans. In other words, family and friends are not a substitute for pets. Pets are beneficial to our well being regardless of how much interaction we have with other people.

In the third study, McConnell and his colleagues asked college students to think about a time when they felt excluded or rejected in a human relationship. Then the students were asked to do one of three things: write about a best friend, write about a favorite pet, or draw a map of their school’s campus.

The students who chose to write about friends or pets felt better after the exercise, and experienced a rebound of feelings of self-worth and happiness after experiencing painful memories of a time when they felt rejected and isolated. However, the students who chose to draw a map continued to feel a bit blue after the exercise.

For the pet owners in the student group, thinking about a pet elevated their feelings just as much as thinking about a best friend. According to the researchers, “one’s pet was every bit as effective as one’s best friend in staving off social needs deficits.”

Pet Owners Enjoy Close Relationships with Both Their Animals and the Important Humans in Their Lives

These study results will come as no surprise to those of you who share a special bond with a fuzzy family member. But it’s certainly helpful to be able to refer to scientific research that shows pet owners derive pleasure and meaning from their relationships with their animal companions -- even when they have friends and family who also play an important role in their lives.

This phenomenon may be explained by the simple fact that our pets make us feel loved. They hold nothing against us, and are always there to greet us when we get home after a long day. Our pets also make us feel needed and give us a reason to get out of bed every day.

McConnell and his colleagues conclude that:

“Belongingness is considered a central need for people. If pets are ‘psychologically close’ to their owner, they may provide well-being benefits for the owner just like any other person.”

Pets are clearly an important source of social and emotional support not only for people who are socially isolated, but also for “everyday people.” These studies show that everyday pet owners are just as close to key people in their lives as to their animals, which debunks the theory that close relationships with pets come at the expense of human relationships.

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