Friends in Fur

How our dogs make us feel better

Posted Mar 27, 2017

'Sara Melson, used with permission'
Source: 'Sara Melson, used with permission'

With over 77 million dogs among us, is it surprising that many are stepping in as friends, confidantes, soulmates, and support systems? In troubled, chaotic times as these, stress levels are rising. Pets, especially dogs, seem to be pulling way above their weight. (Apologies in advance to those 93 million cats and their companion cat lovers for the canine focus of this post.)

Feelings of emotional support and closeness are particularly important when stress mounts. Recent evidence underscores how well pets, especially dogs, are meeting that challenge. Consider a 2011 study of 217 adult pet-owners. Compared to their non-pet owning counterparts, they reported higher self-esteem, less fearfulness, less loneliness, more extraversion, and more exercise. In fact, these pet owners said they felt as close to their companion animal as to their siblings. (Parents and best friends still got top billing.)  When it came to feelings of emotional support, again, pets ranked as high as siblings. In another study, this time with undergrad students, when feelings of being rejected and excluded were induced, students felt equally better after focusing on their best friend or their pet dog. Once again, the “man’s best friend” metaphor just might be literal.

Dogs (and other pets) as support systems in fur have their naysayers. Perhaps people who feel supported by their pets are simply generally good at deriving emotional sustenance from others. After all, not everyone turns to their human network of social ties to get help and feel better. Those who do, --and doing so is itself a social skill--benefit from the shoulder to cry on, the helping hand, and the receptive ear. Perhaps people who are skilled in getting human support bring those skills to bonds with pets as well. In this view, pet support doesn’t contribute anything special.  

We do have some comparisons of human and pet support to address this. In another study (of 56 women who had dogs), feeling a sense of emotional support from one’s dog made a unique contribution to feeling less lonely and depressed, even after controlling for human support. In another study, interviews with ten-year olds showed that attachment to parents and attachment to pet were not related. This means that feeling supported by one’s pet is not simply redundant with support from one’s friends and family. If pet support is different, could it compensate for lack of the human kind? Can pets ‘step in’ when there’s not enough support from other people?

Some evidence points to a qualified “yes.” In a 2010 study of Canadian dog and cat owners living with just their animals, those people who had low human social support  but a close bond with their pet felt less lonely and depressed than did those who lacked pets or did not feel bonded to them.  In another study, adults who expressed anxiety about their human ties sought out more emotional support from their pets. So, it appears that dogs (and maybe cats) can in some ways compensate for the lack of human support, or at least complement that support.

We can get more insight into just what’s so special about pet support by looking at what children and adults say about it. In interviews with children of varying ages, family backgrounds and cultures, common refrains emerge. Pets help children feel less lonely, more validated and accepted and more ‘heard.’ Children tell us that they talk to their pets, knowing full well their pets don’t literally understand.  Kids rank their ties to pets above even those to parents and friends as “most likely to last no matter what” and “even if you get mad at each other.”

The special contribution of pets as stress reducers also can be seen below the surface, on the physiological level. When stress rises, heart rate accelerates and stress hormones, such as cortisol, kick in. A number of studies show that sitting quietly and petting a friendly dog, even if it is not your own, lower blood pressure, with this effect more pronounced when a person is feeling stressed. In direct comparisons of the presence of a best friend versus a friendly dog, the canine takes top honors in lowering blood pressure and cortisol levels.

So if you have a dog or other pet at home (or can ‘borrow’ some quality time with one), take a few deep breathes and even more strokes of the fur when the evening news comes on.  It just might do the trick.

References

Antonoupolis, N. M. D., & 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. Anthrozoos 23, 37-54.

McConnell, A. R., et.al. (2011). Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101, 1239-1252.

Melson, G. F. (2001). Why the wild things are: Animals in the lives of children. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Paul, E. S., et.al. (2014). Sociality motivation and anthropomorphic thinking about pets. Anthrozoos 27, 499-512.