Life-Changing Power of Pets
"There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face." B. Shaw
Posted Aug 28, 2018
The poet Mary Oliver wrote, “What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs.” So great is the tether between human and domesticated animal, her words easily extend to cats, birds, fish and fowl.
As I write, it’s National Dog Day, and a quick troll around Twitter finds that it is on fire with exclamations of passion. Tens of thousands of people—men and women of all ages—are unabashedly singing the virtues of Bailey, Max, Charlie and Sadie (the au courant dog names of the moment) and posting photos that tell a story of mutual adoration. A random scan of Twitter bios reveal that this proud affection crosses all boundaries—political, geographic and lifestyle.
Why? What ignites this deep and unwavering bond?
Well, we know that social relationships have a huge influence on well-being. But does the relationship need to be human?
No. As it turns out, social support and a sense of belonging can come from a sweet friend that has four legs, fur, or feathers.
Rigorous social psychology research demonstrates that pet owners score more favorably on numerous mental and physical health measures. Compared to people who do not share their lives with a pet, pet owners have greater self-esteem, are less fearful and lonely, and are more likely to regularly work out and, thus, be physically fit. Pet owners also were found to be supportive parents and siblings and to offer strong support to family members.
Interestingly, people who are pet owners tend to rate their human relationships as close. Taken together, what this information confirms is that pet lovers are socially skillful people and more extroverted than average.
Pet owners have big hearts and bestow good feelings on both animals and people. Having a pet does not replace a human social network but rather enhances and enlarges it. Cats, dogs, birds—and pets of all species, shapes, and sizes—bring wellness.
Under controlled lab conditions, the study also revealed that pets inoculate people against the effects of social rejection. Writing about their pets made people less susceptible to feeling low after being rejected as compared to a control group. It was also found that in this regard, the pet friend and the human friend were just as effective as a means of providing social support. The bottom line for these researchers was that pets infuse substantial well-being benefits to their humans.
People tend to associate themselves into one of two categories when it comes to pets: either they are a “cat person” or a “dog person.” Some people pledge their allegiance to both camps. There’s even pet rivalry. Some say that dogs are better than cats (or vice versa). Is there a basis for this?
Do dog people really differ from cat people?
This question was asked of more than 250 adults in the United States by researchers at New York’s Manhattanville College. One of the findings is that pet owners have a higher life satisfaction score than individuals who chose to not share life with a pet.
The study also found that dog and cat owners showed significant psychological differences. Dog owners tended to score higher on psychological tests of well-being, with higher scores specifically for being more conscientious and less neurotic. It was also found that dog owners are more extroverted and generally more agreeable.
The researchers note that “personality likely influences our choices to adopt a pet and which pet we choose, but our personality is not fixed, so it could also be influenced by our relationships with others, including our pets.” The bond between owner and pet is emotional and chemical as well. It turns out that oxytocin is released when we hang out with our four-legged friends.
This study even measured the oxytocin released by the pets themselves. There was evidence to back any dog owner who wants to make the case that dogs love their owners more than cats do. Saliva samples taken from dogs and cats after ten minutes of play with their owners revealed that oxytocin surges five times higher for dogs than for cats.
Studies have also shown that dog owners are less likely to have depression. Caring for a dog can help build greater resilience and coping skills to ward off depression, anxiety, and dangerous levels of stress. The American Heart Association has found a link between owning a pet—especially a dog—and reduced risk of hypertension and stroke, as well as a longer life span with fewer visits to the doctor over the years.
As Charlie Brown has long known, happiness is a warm puppy, right?