Relationships

Do Pets Really Unconditionally Love and Unwind Us?

Pets are choosy about who they love and don't always reduce stress.

Posted Jun 15, 2020

"The bottom line is that a substantial majority of the 21 studies did not find that people living with pets are less lonely than people without pets. Further, only one of the eight studies conducted in the last five years found strong evidence that pets reduce loneliness." —Hal Herzog, Can Pets Relieve Loneliness In the Age of Coronavirus?

"Most research does not support the claim that pet ownership is related to lower rates of depression." —Hal Herzog, The Sad Truth About Pet Ownership and Depression

Pets Unconditionally Love and Unwind Us: Misleading Memes

An essay titled The Health Benefits of Pet Love by Dana Dorfman attracted my attention because of my interest in all things pets. I read through it, found some misstatements that unfortunately have become memes, decided to move on to other things, and then some emails flew into my inbox raising some of the same questions I had about pets supposedly offering unconditional love and the health benefits they supposedly provide. These included, "Are pets really unconditional lovers?" and "Do data actually support sweeping conclusions that pets are really beneficial in any widespread way?" I want to emphasize that I don't in any way doubt Dorfman's good intentions nor do I want to be a killjoy, but here are a few points, based on available scientific research, that require close attention and clarification. 

What do the data say about possible health benefits of pets?

Concerning possible physiological bases for the connection between the presence of a pet and one's mental health Dorfman begins: "Science indicates it is, indeed, physical. Researchers have determined that interacting with a friendly animal lowers blood pressure, slows heart rate, and has a positive effect on the body’s levels of stress-modulating hormones, particularly cortisol and dopamine. Cortisol plays an important role in controlling blood sugar and metabolism and reducing inflammation. Dopamine is a chemical mood booster prompting feelings of pleasure and motivation."

Are pets really incarnations or embodiments of love? Dorfman goes on to write, "Pets offer unconditional love. Perhaps, that’s why human-animal interactions also seemingly stimulate the production of oxytocin—sometimes called the 'love hormone.'” Simply put, companion animals (aka pets), including dogs and cats, are not unconditional lovers. In fact, they're very choosy about who they decide to love. This is well known to anyone who's fostered or adopted an individual who previously had had a rough life. Even some potential pets who didn't previously have problems can be difficult to home.

When one looks at the data for a good number of studies, it's very clear that not all, or even close to all people, benefit from the presence of a companion animal. For example, Dorfman writes that in a study of more than 2000 participants, 90% "concluded pets were helping lower their stress. Nearly three-quarters of older respondents who, at the time of the survey, were either living alone or struggling with emotional or physical issues said pets enabled them to cope. Sixty-five percent of poll participants credited pets for enhancing their ability to interact socially with others. Meanwhile, in a Harris poll of a few years ago, 95 percent of pet owners said they considered their pet to be a member of the family."

When one does the math, it's clear that for some measures there were a large number of people who did not receive health benefits of living with a pet. And, considering a pet to be a family member does not in any way guarantee that they're living a good life. (See Jessica Pierce's book Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets for more detailed discussions.)  

It's most fortunate that Psychology Today blogger Hal Herzog also wanted to know what available data say about possible health benefits of pets. He analyzed the results of 21 studies and learned that in only six (28.6%) was there evidence that "as a group, pet owners were less lonely than non-pet owners. Eleven of the studies reported no differences in the loneliness of people with and without companion animals." He goes on to write, "The good news is that only one research team reported that pet owners were more lonely than non-pet owners. It was a large British study (open access) that found that owning a pet was associated with a 24 percent increase in loneliness in older people (which jumped to a 50 percent increase in women who owned pets)." A number of studies produced mixed results.

Herzog also notes, "The patterns of results of more recent studies on pets and loneliness differ from earlier investigations. Five of the 13 studies published before 2015 reported that pet owners were less lonely than non-owners. In contrast, only one of the eight studies conducted since then obtained convincing evidence that owning a pet was associated with being less lonely, a study of homeless youths."

I highly recommend Herzog's excellent post and another one called "The Sad Truth About Pet Ownership and Depression" in which he reports similar trends. These include, "Eighteen of the 30 studies found that, as a group, there were no differences in rates of depression between pet owners and non-owners; Five studies reported that pet owners were more likely to be depressed than non-owners; and Only 5 of the 30 studies found that, as a group, pet owners suffered less from depression than people who did not live with a companion animal."

What's in it for the pets? 

When one considers the data, it's clear that while there is some evidence that shows that some pets have some beneficial effects for some people, sweeping and uncritical conclusions that pets are likely to be remedies for this or that problem don't match what we know. There are many details that require serious consideration, including whether one should go ahead and foster or adopt a companion animal. 

Of course, for some people, considering bringing another animal into their home might sound like a good and workable solution to the situation at hand. However, the question that's essential to consider is, "What's in it for the nonhumans?" Taking another living being into your home and hopefully into your heart is a huge decision, and it's not the right move for a good number of people because they will not be able to give their new companion what they really need. Choosing to live with a companion animal is a two-way street and all participants have to benefitit's got to be good for you and your new friend

Furthermore, there are marked individual differences among pets of the same species, so there's always a possibility that the individual you choose might not be a good fit for your home and lifestyle. Some individuals don't like to be touched or hugged, which could be a deterrent to forming a solid and mutually beneficial long-lasting relationship. Living with a pet takes a good deal of time, energy, and money. Dogs, for example, need to exercise their noses. Being allowed to sniff to their nose's content can make them think more positively and perhaps be better companions. They shouldn't be rushed on their walks, and this can take a good deal of time.

Individuals of other species also have their own species-typical specific needs that can take time to fulfill. Knowing what your companion animal needs—becoming literate in what members of different species need—is essential for being able to give them the best lives possible. Deciding not to bring another animal into your life is a perfectly good decision if you're not ready for it. 

Pets are not panaceas for lifting one's spirits

Data clearly show that pets are not panaceas for lifting one's spirits. Perhaps it's because there are marked individual differences among people who choose to bring a companion animal into their lives and the reasons underlying this decision won't be cured by the presence of a pet. Or, perhaps it's because the people aren't really ready to share their home with another sentient living being. Or, it's because the people don't get what they expect and need from their new friend, namely, an unconditional lover who'll be there for them 24/7 regardless of how they're feeling.

A practical rule of thumb I often suggest is if it looks highly likely that the presence of a companion animal will develop into a close and workable reciprocal relationship for you and for them and you're able to give them the good life to which they're also entitled, go for it because the chances are that it would be a win-win for all. If you're not sure, think about it deeply and realize that this may not be the best time to bring another being for whom you're their veritable lifeline into your home. It's okay to make this decision and to figure out how to otherwise best deal with whatever isn't going right for you.

There's no reason to bring another living being into the equation when it's likely you won't get what you need from them and they won't get what they need from you. This is a lose-lose situation and bad for all involved. All the players need support and love. 

Stay tuned for further discussions about the role companion animals might play in helping us deal with life's ups and downs and what they get from the relationship. Given what we now know from some excellent research, wide-ranging claims that nonhuman companions can be cure-alls for this and that condition across the board are overblown. It's essential to carefully look at available data.

Facebook image: Hitdelight/Shutterstock

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