When I come home, I am greeted each and every time by my cat, Simon (see above). Lately, he’s been sitting on my sweater that’s on the table, but other times, he trots on by to say hello. It’ll be seven years in September since I adopted him as a little kitten from the humane association. In the time that I’ve known him, I haven’t had a suicide attempt. Is it coincidence or has my cat affected my mental health? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (an online publication by the American Psychological Association) just published a paper titled “Friends with Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership” which contends that pets indeed are good for our mental health. “Specifically,” said the lead researcher Allen R. McConnell, “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.”
Below is their abstract:
Social support is critical for psychological and physical well-being, reflecting the centrality of belongingness in our lives. Human interactions often provide people with considerable social support, but can pets also fulfill one’s social needs? Although there is correlational evidence that pets may help individuals facing significant life stressors, little is known about the well-being benefits of pets for everyday people. Study 1 found in a community sample that pet owners fared better on several well-being (e.g., greater self-esteem, more exercise) and individual-difference (e.g., greater conscientiousness, less fearful attachment) measures. Study 2 assessed a different community sample and found that owners enjoyed better well-being when their pets fulfilled social needs better, and the support that pets provided complemented rather than competed with human sources. Finally, Study 3 brought pet owners into the laboratory and experimentally demonstrated the ability of pets to stave off negativity caused by social rejection. In summary, pets can serve as important sources of social support, providing many positive psychological and physical benefits for their owners.
This research is a pretty big deal considering that most previous research into the benefits of pets has looked only at the relationship between two variables, but didn’t show any real correlations. In addition to the social support provided by the pets, the researchers also found that pet owners were just as close to key people in their lives as to their animals, indicating 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.
It is a fascinating study, especially since it’s a very quantitative one involving experiments rather than compiling a bunch of anecdotal, qualitative evidence from pet owners.