Decades of research show that close relationships play a critical role in our health and well-being. People need to feel connected to others, and so they fare much better when they have supportive, nurturing relationships with people such as family members, friends, and romantic partners. But what about our relationships with our four-legged friends? Are pets just cute and fun to play with, or can they actually help to meet some of our important psychological needs?

Recent research suggests the latter. Across two studies, McConnell and colleagues1 recruited pet owners – mostly owners of dogs and cats, but some other types of pets were included as well – and compared them to non-pet-owners. They found that people who own pets tend to enjoy a wide range of advantages over those who do not own pets:

  1. Pet owners in these studies reported being less lonely, less depressed, less stressed, more physically fit, happier with their lives, and they had high self-esteem, relative to people who did not own pets.
  2. Pets provide a shoulder (or maybe a paw) to lean on; on average, pet owners reported receiving about as much social support from their pets as they did from their parents and siblings!
  3. The social support that pets provided appeared to explain some of the benefits described above: the more people saw their pets as meeting their social needs, the more they reaped those benefits (less loneliness, less depression, more happiness, etc.).
  4. Notably, pet owners reported higher well-being than non-pet owners regardless of how many close relationship they had with people. So, it didn’t seem to be just the proverbial spinster cat ladies who were benefiting from pet ownership. Rather, owning a pet was associated with psychological benefits for everyone, even if they already had numerous close, supportive relationships in their lives.

The results of these two studies suggest that pets may help to meet our social needs. However, it’s important to note that these studies were correlational, which means that we can’t say just from this research that going out and buying a pet will make you happier. People who choose to own pets may be different from non-pet-owners to begin with (and indeed, the researchers did find some personality differences between pet owners and non-pet-owners, but that’s for a different post).

In order to test whether or not pets can actually cause people to have higher well-being, the researchers conducted an experiment. They brought pet owners into the lab, and randomly assigned some of them to think about a time when they were socially rejected. Then, some of the participants were also instructed to think about their pet. As is typically found with rejection studies, people who thought about being rejected tended to feel more isolated and lonely afterwards compared to people who thought about a neutral topic. But, this wasn’t the case for people who also thought about their pet. Thinking about one’s pet actually staved off feelings of rejection! Indeed, thinking about a pet worked just as well as thinking about a best friend at making people feel better after a rejection experience. Given this experimental evidence, we can pretty confidently conclude that pets can, in fact, help people to feel socially connected.

Why are pets so good at meeting our social needs? Right now, we can only speculate. Part of it may be that pets tend to love their owners unconditionally: people are generally not too concerned about being “rejected” by their pets. Or maybe the reason is that pets demand less emotional energy than people do. Regardless of the mechanism, research suggests that owning a pet is a great way to feel more socially fulfilled, even for people who already have a number of meaningful relationships in their lives.

This article was originally written for Science of Relationships.

1. McConnell, A. R., Brow, C. M., Shoda, T. M., Styton, L. E., & Martin, C. E. (2011). Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 1239-1252.

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