Dogs Provide Owners Greater Mental Well-Being

Since the days of early man, the dog has been considered man’s best friend. A recent study, which was conducted in three parts, examined the beneficial effects of pet ownership. The well-being of pet owners compared to nonowners was evaluated in this study. The study also compared the social support provided by dogs with the support provided by friends and family. Finally, an experiment was carried out to check whether thoughts of pets help to alleviate the stress of loneliness. It has been concluded that pets can serve as important sources of social support, providing many positive psychological and physical benefits for their owners.

At present, about 62 percent of U.S. families own a pet. More than $45 billion is spent on pets every year. Pets indeed form an integral part of many families. Studies performed in the past have shown that pets provide significant social support and thereby, increase the well-being and happiness of the owners. Some studies have shown that pets increase the survival of people who suffered from heart attack. Owning pets has proved to reduce depression in HIV positive individuals. However, the majority of such studies were conducted on individuals who had some form of physical or psychological illness. This study was undertaken to assess the beneficial effects of owning pets among the general population.

* The first part of the experiment included 167 pet owners and 50 non-owners. The measures of well-being such as the level of depression, loneliness, self-esteem, physical illness, subjective happiness, and fitness were assessed in both the groups by using various questionnaires. At the same time, an attempt was made to assess the personality of the participants in both the groups.
* In the second part of the experiment, 56 dog owners were questioned regarding the social support provided by their dog. They were asked to compare this support with the social support provided by their friends and family.
* In the third part of the experiment, a sense of loneliness was artificially induced in 97 volunteers by placing them in private rooms and asking them to write about rejection for 5 minutes. Later on, these participants were asked to write about their pets, friends, and campus (control conditions).

* The first part of the study showed that pet owners enjoyed greater well-being compared to the nonowners. The pet owners were less fearful and were less obsessive.
* The second part of the study showed that when dog owners relied on their dogs for social fulfillment, they were less depressed, less lonely, had higher self-esteem, were happier, and tended to experience less perceived stress.
* The third part of the experiment showed that thinking about pets was as effective as thinking about friends in staving off the stress of loneliness.

Shortcomings/Next steps
This study has shown that the social support provided by dogs is as effective as that provided by dear ones. However, the long-term consequences of obtaining support from dogs need to be examined. The pets that were used for this study were chosen from public places like animal shelters. People who tend to isolate themselves from family are known to go to such places. Hence, the findings of this study may not be generalized to the public at large.

The authors concluded that, “[there is] considerable evidence that pets benefit the lives of owners, both psychologically and physically, by serving as an important source of social support.” With more than 77 million pet dogs in the United States, these findings are noteworthy for a large population. People who have painful experiences of loneliness due to social rejection can get immediate comfort by owning a dog. As the present study indicates, the support provided by the dog would be as good as the support provided by family and friends. This would significantly improve their well-being and help in recovering from stress.

For More Information:
Friends with Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership
Publication Journal: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, July 2011
By Allen R. McConnell; Christina M. Brown; Miami University, Oxford, Ohio; Saint Louis University, Saint Louis, Missouri

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

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