The millions of Americans who own pets spend billions of dollars on them annually, shower them in love, and – anecdotally – talk and post about them constantly (you know who you are). But besides providing us something totally adorable to photograph and cuddle with, what good is it to have a furry, domesticated animal running around your home?
For starters, we know that pets are beneficial to people with health vulnerabilities: owning a pet is associated with greater longevity after a heart attack (Friedmann & Thomas, 1995) and less depression among HIV-positive men (Siegel et al., 1999). But until a quirky set of studies last year, we didn't know whether this link was causal (i.e., pets somehow stave off depression) instead of rooted in an underlying common factor (e.g., the capacity to take care of a pet), or whether the benefits of pet ownership would extend to a healthy population.
McConnell and colleagues (2011) argued that pets provide social support for their owners and help fulfill their owners' need for belonging (that is, having close, rewarding relationships), both of which are strongly tied to better well-being. They set out to systematically test how and why pet owners may be in better psychological shape than their counterparts without fuzzy companions.
The Compleat Pet Owner
This paints an interesting portrait of pet owners as – relative to non-pet owners – more outgoing, autonomous, and put-together, with an overall more positive sense of self.
Pets may thus be instrumental to our well-being because they give us a reason to come home, someone to share love with, and someone to have power over (though I’m sure any pet owner would readily admit that pets hold an amount of power over us, as well).
Funnily enough, owners tend to anthropomorphize (ascribe human qualities to) especially supportive pets more than those who don't satisfy their owners’ needs. So the better a dog is at supporting its owner, the more the owner sees that dog as human. These supportive dogs also tended to be more active, less fearful, and less aggressive to animals and humans alike.
Who Loves You?
We all know the crazy cat lady stereotype, a kooky character with too many cats and too few (human) friends. But is it generally true that if you can feel socially connected via your pets, you give up on human contact? It appears not.
Rather than replacing human relationships with animal, people who report getting more support from their pets also report receiving more human support. And both pet-provided and human-provided support are good for us in their own ways, with each source independently contributing to our well-being.
But when we feel disconnected from other humans, it is useful to turn to our relationships with our pets. After putting people into the mindset of being rejected, letting them reflect on their relationship with their closest pet is beneficial – just as much so as reflecting on one’s relationship with a best friend – for averting the negative outcomes of rejection (specifically, reducing threat to one’s social needs). So next time you feel left-out, think fondly of your favorite fluffy buddy.
Do you think cats are supportive pets? What other types of pets should be included in this work? Do you have fond memories of supportive pets from your childhood? Why do you love your pets? Or if you don’t like pets, why not?
McConnell, A., Brown, C., Shoda, T., Stayton, L., & Martin, C. (2011). Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101 (6), 1239-1252 DOI: 10.1037/a0024506