Pet Ownership Improves Well-Being

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Owning a pet may have more perks than simply returning home to a companion that's happy to see you.

Most studies looking at the psychological effects of pet ownership focus on individuals experiencing health issues or overcoming hurdles in life such as recovering from an illness or injury. Researchers have paid little attention to pets' influence on the average person.

Yet a recent paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology tackles the subject, revealing our relationships with Fido and Fluffy may be linked to greater well-being for people not experiencing health-related issues. Overall, researchers found pet ownership to be associated with higher self-esteem, higher levels of fitness and lower reports of loneliness among participants.

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The three experiments relied on surveys from pet owners as well as individuals without pets. At first, it was unclear whether people sought comfort in their pets because they lacked closeness to family and friends. One experiment with data from 217 respondents suggested this isn't the case, and that closeness to pets increased with a person's affinity for friends and family.

Another setup with a group of 56 dog owners confirmed the benefits of receiving social support from pets — or at least fancying receiving support. Either way, owners' feelings seemed to complement existing relationships with humans rather than compete with them.

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A third experiment, with a sample of 97 undergrads, looked at participants' reactions to rejection and whether thinking about their pets provided social support. It turns out thinking about pets made people feel just as good as keeping a supportive best friend in mind.

Though the associations between pet ownership and higher well-being are intriguing, causation's difficult to prove. Could it be that more secure and outgoing people are attracted to certain pets — dogs in particular?

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It's also true that owning a pet isn't for everyone, especially if you have severe allergies or don't have the time to dedicate to a furry, feathered or scaly roommate. What about the people who surrender their pets because they couldn't provide the best care for them? In those cases, would it be far-fetched to say that ownership negatively affected well-being?

The experiments also touched on who's more likely to anthropomorphize, or attribute human qualities, to their pets. Participants with common signs of depression were more likely to see human qualities in their animals.

Despite the need for more research, the findings suggest that pets' effects on well-being may explain why 62 percent of U.S. households own a pet, according to the American Pet Products Association.

Photo by spaceamoeba/Flickr.com