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Living Alone? Can Canine Companionship Help Beat Loneliness?

Canine social support provides limited benefits to lonely people

Older woman walking dogOur research just published in the journal Anthrozoös revealed that among pet owners with low levels of human social support, high attachment to pets predicted significantly higher scores on loneliness and depression. These findings highlight the complex nature of the relationship between pet ownership and psychological health.

I'm working with an extraordinarily talented doctoral student, Nikolina Duvall Antonacopoulos. Nikolina and I have been working together since her undergraduate studies, as I agreed to supervise an honours-year project based on her interest in dogs as companion animals and their effects on our well-being. As a psychologist with an "other life" as a dog musher (I have a  kennel of 11 huskies), I have been very happy to supervise Nikolina's work and think about these issues.

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Nikolina has published a variety of studies, including things like the effects of anthropomorphism of our dogs. With the rise of doggie boutiques, this is a very interesting topic.

Today, the focus is on the unexpected finding that being emotionally attached to your pet while at the same time having low levels of human social support predicts higher loneliness and depression scores. If you have a dog, if you're living alone, I think this study will interest you too.

More people living alone these days
The potential psychological health benefits that pets may confer to individuals living in one-person households is of particular interest. Worldwide there is a growing trend toward one-person households. One-person households accounted for 26% of American households in 2005, and these figures are similar for Europe and Australasia in 2006. It is expected that the number of one-person households will continue to increase in years to come at a faster rate than other types of households.

Based on a number of previous studies, it is usually concluded that pet ownership may be beneficial for the psychological health of individuals living alone. Our most recent study indicates that it's not so simple.

Our study
Our study built on previous work that examined the possible psychological health benefits of pet ownership for individuals living alone by considering the role of human social support and pet attachment.

In the case of human social support, previous research comparing pet and non-pet owners suggests that, for individuals who live alone, pets provide psychological health benefits, such as reducing negative moods and loneliness levels. However, the studies that examined the psychological health of individuals living alone with or without a pet did not explicitly examine the role of human social support. This is surprising given that, for individuals living alone, pet ownership (pet vs. no pet) and levels of human social support may both certainly affect psychological health.

In her research, Nikolina argued that, for individuals living alone, levels of human social support and pet ownership may interact to predict psychological health in terms of loneliness and depression levels.

In the case of pet attachment, there was no agreement in the existing literature as to whether high levels of attachment to pets were related to psychological health. However, this relation has not been examined among individuals in the general population who live alone. It may be that, for individuals living alone, the companionship provided by their pet is advantageous for their psychological health by, for example, reducing their loneliness levels.

The participants and the data
One hundred and thirty-two Canadian pet (dog and cat owners) and non-pet owners (defined as individuals who did not own a dog or cat) who were at least 18 years of age and living alone completed a 15 minute on-line survey of "factors affecting the well-being of individuals living alone." The sample consisted of 66 pet owners (40 dog owners and 26 cat owners) and 66 people who did not own a dog or a cat.

The participants completed measures of perceived social support ("I can talk about my problems with my friends"), emotional attachment to pets ("Quite often, my feelings toward people are affected by the way they react to my pet"), depression and loneliness.

We examined the possibility that attachment levels to pets and human social support levels interact to predict psychological health in terms of loneliness and depression levels.

The results
Contrary to expectations, pet owners and non-owners living alone did not have significantly different levels of loneliness or depression. Our finding of the lack of a direct relation between pet ownership and either loneliness or depression was unexpected, given that, in their responses to an open-ended question, both dog and cat owners indicated that the most important benefit of pet ownership was companionship. Furthermore, 82.5 percent of participants indicated that their pet has had a strong positive impact on their life. Our findings suggest that, although pets may be a source of companionship, the fact that pet owners living alone were not less lonely or depressed than individuals living alone without a pet raises the possibility that the benefits of pet ownership for dog and cat owners may only be apparent when other factors, such as levels of human social support, are considered.

When we examined the influence of human social support, results revealed that dog owners, but not cat owners, with high levels of human social support were significantly less lonely than non-owners with high levels of human social support. However, among individuals with low levels of human social support, there was no difference in the loneliness levels of dog and cat owners compared to non-owners. Furthermore, there were no differences in the depression levels of either dog or cat owners, according to their level of human social support.

The findings regarding loneliness suggest that, among individuals living alone, dog ownership is most beneficial for individuals who have sufficient human social support. While our findings only held for dog owners, the results are consistent with previous research with seniors. The conclusion from this earlier research was that individuals who benefited most from pet ownership were likely to already be well-supported in their social relationships and not dependent on the pet for company or to boost self-esteem.

The nature of social support
One possible explanation for the finding that dog owners with high levels of human social support were significantly less lonely than non-owners with high levels of human social support is provided by examining types of perceived social support. Generally we can distinguish three types of social support: emotional support (meeting an individual's need for love), tangible support (practical assistance, such as buying groceries when an individual is ill) and informational support (helping to solve problems and provide guidance). While it is unlikely that a dog could provide either tangible or informational support, a dog could provide emotional support. Indeed, the third most frequently cited benefit of dog ownership in our study was love and affection, endorsed by 41% of the sample.

Among individuals living alone with high levels of human social support, their dog may provide an additional source of emotional support that is not available to non-owners. However, among individuals with low levels of human social support, the emotional support provided by a dog may not be sufficient to compensate for insufficient human social support. This may explain why they do not differ from non-owners with low levels of human social support in terms of loneliness levels.

Dogs vs. cats
There are a number of possible explanations for the finding that dog ownership, but not cat ownership, was beneficial for the loneliness levels of individuals living alone with high levels of human social support. Dog owners differ from cat owners in that dog owners need to walk their dog. In fact, the second most commonly cited benefit of dog ownership, endorsed by 59% of the participants, was that dog owners received exercise walking their dog. Furthermore, given that researchers have found that increased levels of physical activity are associated with mental health benefits, it is probable that dog owners are receiving mental health benefits from their exercise.

Researchers have also found that dogs act as social catalysts by increasing dog walkers' number of human-human social interactions, possibly because people are perceived as more likable when they are with their dog, and dogs provide a neutral topic for conversation and, therefore, act as social "ice-breakers." In addition, these human-human interactions may increase people's social networks and subsequently confer health advantages to dog owners.

Taken together, this research suggests that, among individuals living alone, dog owners may avoid becoming lonely through meeting people and making new friends, as a result of dog walking.

Attachment to Pets and Well-Being
We found that among pet owners living alone with low levels of human social support, those who were highly attached to their pet were significantly more lonely and depressed than pet owners with low levels of attachment to their pet. In contrast, among pet owners with high levels of social support, loneliness and depression levels did not vary according to level of attachment to the pet.

An important "however" . . .
Although we found that among individuals with low levels of human social support, pet owners who were highly attached to their pet were more lonely and depressed than pet owners who had low levels of attachment to their pet, there may be subgroups for whom this finding does not hold. For example, previous research has found that among bereaved seniors with low levels of human social support, pet owners who were highly attached to their pet were less depressed than pet owners with low levels of attachment to their pet.

Another possible interpretation of these findings is that individuals who lack human social support and become highly attached to their pet may spend more time at home caring for their pet compared to individuals who are less attached to their pet. For example, individuals with high levels of attachment may feel a stronger obligation to rush home from work or leave a social event early to care for their pet. Support for this suggestion comes from previous research that showed that attachment to pets was related to the number of hours spent with the pet. Among individuals with low levels of human social support, if they choose to spend time with their pet rather than socializing with other people, they may begin to feel somewhat socially isolated. Social isolation in favor of pet companionship may undermine psychological well-being.

Concluding thought . . .
I'm sure that this study will evoke lots of mixed reactions. It has from us as well, and Nikolina continues her studies. The thing we can all agree on is that the effects of pet ownership on our psychological and physical well-being is complex.

Enough said. This is a very long blog posting as is, and it's time to go run my dogs! Ah, that's another route to well-being through pet ownership - shared goal pursuits . . . hey Nikolina, I've got an idea for another study . . .

Reference
Duvall Antonacopoulos, N. M. & Pychyl, T. A. (2010). An examination of the potential role of pet ownership, human social support and pet attachment in the psychological health of individuals living alone. Anthrozoös, 23(1), 37-54.

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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