Personal Experiences of Pets
My colleague Kelly Seaward wrote a beautiful account (May 2019 blog) of her positive experience of living with her cat, Bella. I too have had wonderful experiences of pet ownership as a child and more recently with my cat Florence (see photo). So, let’s look at the research evidence for the well-being effects of having a pet and consider what the mechanisms of any such impacts might be and thus to what extent getting a pet might be considered a positive psychology intervention.
Beyond Anecdote: Is there a positive pet effect?
There is a considerable amount of research into, and evidence for, the use of animals for therapeutic purposes in specific settings. However, the research into the impact of pet ownership for the average person is less clear. Plenty of studies have supported the notion of Zooeyia (the human health benefits of companion animals), with impacts including better self-esteem, increased happiness and life satisfaction, more adaptive attachment, better health, fewer doctor visits, reduced blood pressure and lower levels of loneliness. However, the results are conflicting, with some studies showing no significant relationship between pet ownership and positive well-being measures and some even indicating poorer health in pet owners. Many studies are based on correlational data which tells us little about any causal role of having a pet on well-being, there may be lots of reasons why those who choose to have a pet experience better or worse health. Those studies which have adopted a more stringent experimental or longitudinal approach tend to have small samples and have not always been easy to replicate. Herzog (2011) reviewed the evidence for the “pet effect” and concluded that at present it is an unsubstantiated hypothesis.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the literature is unclear. After all, there are many different types of pets and although some studies look at specific animals, some don’t and the impacts could be widely variable. It is also likely that individual context and meaning have an important part to play. I love my cat but am mildly phobic of snakes having grown up in countries where I had relatively frequent bad experiences with them. I don’t think snake ownership would boost my well-being, although I know people who adore their reptilian house mates. Indeed, studies have begun to suggest that how the companion animal is viewed is a key factor in the effects on well-being and the extent to which they fulfil social needs for the owner is a related important parameter. This sounds obvious but suggests that whether having a pet is a positive influence on well-being is context dependant rather than a given fact. More targeted research is needed to unpick this.
What are the downsides?
Potential disadvantages of having a pet have also been identified. These include catching diseases from pets, as well as injury from bites or stings or more often accidental injuries such as falling over your enthusiastic pooch! There is also the question of pet allergies and the influence this might have on relationships and social circles.
The cost of looking after an animal, with appropriate veterinary care can be high, as can boarding them during times when you are unable to care for them personally. This financial pressure can lead to conflicts about prioritisation of resources within families and even neglect of human health in favour of the pet’s needs, especially in elderly people. Resources in terms of time and responsibility in caring for a pet can lead to additional stress within families.
Pets have shorter life spans than humans, so most people have to deal with the death of their pet at some stage. For many people this can be as traumatic as losing a family member, again depending on how the pet is viewed.
The flip side of these last two points is that teaching children about the responsibility of caring for an animal and about death are sometimes cited as reasons for getting a pet by parents.
Mechanisms of positive pet experiences
There are a number of ways in which having a pet might promote positive well-being.
- Promoting healthy behaviour change: If you have a dog you are likely to walk more. Research confirms the link between increased exercise, the associated health benefits and dog ownership. This may be less relevant to other animals. Although even spending time outside has been shown to have positive health benefits and this could be relevant to ownership of pets such as rabbits, if you keep them in the garden. Some studies have also shown that people are more likely to give up unhealthy behaviours, such as smoking, to protect their pet’s health than their own!
- Increased social capital: People who walk with their dogs talk to other dog owners promoting social interaction and connection which are important predictors of well-being. People talk about their pets with their neighbours and friends and communities of specialist pet owners flourish online and in person. It should be noted however that arguments about pets, especially dogs barking, can also be a source of friction between neighbours.
- Increased positive emotions: Pets frequently promote positive feelings such as joy, love, playfulness and gratitude as they respond to their owners with unconditional affection promoting a sense of attachment. We know that experiencing positive emotions is a vital part of well-being and promotes resilience.
- Better coping with stress: Having a pet, particularly for those who live alone, can promote a sense of relatedness and reduce loneliness. Pets, if acquired after the death of a loved one can act as a transitional object. Although, contrary to popular opinion, research indicates that pets generally complement social needs provided by human sources rather than compete with them. Stroking a pet activates the affiliative soothing system which promotes oxytocin production and feelings of safeness, which help to balance threat and drive systems which are active when people experience stress. This also reduces blood pressure, which may be why cat ownership is particularly associated with reduced cardiovascular risks (Hodgson et al 2015). Looking at the movement of fish can also encourage a meditative state.
Pets can encourage us to slow down, reconnect, appreciate beauty and promote perspective. Although context is again important, sometimes taking the dog out just feels like another thing to do.
From a positive psychology perspective, I feel I should also mention the ethical side of owning pets. We believe them to be good for us, but are we good for them? Not only do we need to look after their physical health properly, but do we consider their needs? Is it really OK to keep a dog in a small flat or a rabbit in a cage? Is it OK to breed animals to fulfil our needs and wants at the expense of their health? Perhaps that is another question.
There are many ways in which pet ownership can promote our physical and mental health and thus could be considered a positive psychology intervention. However, context needs to be considered and our psychological and physical needs matched to those of the individual animal. Not all cats like to be stroked, fortunately for me, mine loves it and so do my oxytocin levels.
Photo: Florence by permission of Martha Monk
Herzog, H. (2011). The impact of pets on human health and psychological well-being: Fact, fiction, or hypothesis? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20 (4), 236-239.
Hodgson, K., Barton, L., Darling, M., Kim, F. & Monavvarri, A. (2015). Pets’ impact on your patient’s health: Leveraging benefits and mitigating risk. Journal American Board of Family Medicine. 10.3122/jabfm,2015.04.140254
About the author: Sarah Monk