Correlational studies of the past decade have demonstrated a clear link between pet ownership and better health: lower blood pressure, more physical fitness, less loneliness, and higher self-esteem, to name a few benefits. In a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers Allen McConnell and colleagues examined whether pets had the ability to eliminate the negativity felt by pet owners when faced with social rejection.
Pet owners (97 of them!—what a crazy room) were brought into the laboratory. Some were induced to feel socially rejected by writing about a time in their past when they felt socially isolated or excluded. The other half of participants did not undergo this exercise.
The pet owners were then instructed to do one of three tasks: 1. write about their pet, 2. write about their best friend, or 3. draw a map of the area (control).
As expected, those subjected to "social rejection" who drew the map felt subjectively worse than the beginning of the experiment. Those "rejected," however, who wrote about either their pet or their best friend experienced positive feelings, even after the feelings of rejection were induced. In other words, thinking about one's pet could stave off feelings of rejection not unlike thinking about your best bud.
Also interesting was the fact that positivity scores were not dependent on whether the person owned a cat or dog, or even horse, goat, or snake.
I would have liked to know how many of those pet owners actually equate or consider their pets their best friends. Personally, I know that my greyhound, Patrick, is my best friend. The fact that he has a human name makes me a little more willing to declare my undying love for him in the company of others.
McConnell AR, Brown CM, Shoda TM, Stayton LE, & Martin CE (2011). Friends with benefits: on the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101(6), 1239-52 PMID: 21728449