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Pet Ownership and Mental Health

Ode to Man’s Best Friend

A recent health scare of my beloved miniature pinscher, Dino, really spotlighted for me and our family the significant place our dog (and more generally, pets) holds within our lives. The tragedy, of course, for all dog owners is that their lifespans don’t come close to rivaling our own, so most of us have or will over the course of our lifetimes bury and mourn our beloved pets.

Rather than focusing on this inevitable downside to pet ownership, however, in the wake of confronting my dog’s mortality it has given me the opportunity to reflect on all of the positives that come with pet ownership (Dino has a good prognosis, I am relieved to report). What makes us endure the inevitable loss of our beloved dogs and compel us to continue to adopt, rescue, and take care of these animals much like we will other family members? It turns out that dog ownership is, in fact, good for our mental health and wellbeing.

Research has revealed both through experimental and correlational methods that dog owners exhibit greater benefits than non-owners on dimensions as far ranging as self-esteem, physical fitness, sociability, happiness, and overall health (McConnell et al., 2011). Moreover, dog ownership has also been implicated in helping to alleviate symptoms of depression among terminally ill patients, the elderly, and veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In fact, many innovative therapies today targeting our returning veterans specifically integrate canine therapy, with some resources referring to the presence of dogs as “life-savers” for these veterans (e.g. Colin, 2012).

Indeed, any pet owner can attest to the myriad of benefits that come with ownership—chief among them for young children the facilitation in cultivating empathy towards others and enhancing responsibility in taking care of a living being other than oneself. In fact, less pre-occupation with oneself is higher among pet owners when compared to non-owners, suggesting that the responsibility of taking care of another may release us somewhat from our egocentric tendencies.

In a cultural landscape that is demanding and highly stressful, where we oftentimes feel our sense of worthiness being equated to how we look or what job we have or how much money we earn, the uncomplicated and simple love that comes from dog ownership is priceless. These benefits are perhaps best summed up in the following quote I stumbled upon as I was reflecting about man’s best friend: “There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face” (“Quotations About Dogs”, n.d., para 1). Alas, pet ownership may be the last bastion of refuge and unconditional love that we can experience in our every-changing and growing world.

Colin, C. (2012). How dogs can help veterans overcome PTSD. Smithsonian Magazine: Science & Nature. Retrieved on March 4, 2013 from: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/How-Dogs-Can-Help-Ve... .

McConnell, A., Brown, C., Shoda, T., Stayton, L., Martin, C. (2011). Friends with benefits: on the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 101(6). Summary retrieved on March 4, 2013 from: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2011/07/cats-dogs.aspx .

“Quotations About Dogs” (n.d.). The Quote Garden. Retrieved on March 4, 2013 from: http://www.quotegarden.com/dogs.html .

To learn more about pet adoption, or finding the right pet for you and your family, visit: http://www.petfinder.com/

Azadeh Aalai Copyright 2013

Azadeh Aalai, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Montgomery College in Maryland and an adjunct at George Washington University. She is the author of Understanding Aggression. more...

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