Does the Presence of a Companion Animal Help Young Mothers?

An essay about motherhood, pet-keeping, and postpartum depression symptoms.

Posted May 22, 2020

I'm pleased to post the guest essay by renowned dog expert, Ádám Miklósi, founder the Family Dog Research Project, author of Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition, and head of the Ethology Department at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. This piece focuses on a fascinating new research essay by Andrea Temesi, Nóra Buford, and Ádám Miklósi titled "Associations among attitudes towards motherhood, pet-keeping, and postpartum depression symptoms" that's available online for free.1

Today, companion animals play very important roles in people’s lives. Many are considered to be family members and, as they remain dependent on their owners throughout their lives, often evoke maternal feelings in their owners.

The presence of a companion animal can have beneficial mental (e.g., supportive) and physical health effects and helps people cope with and endure stressful life situations. These positive effects are especially true for owners who are closely attached to their companion animals.

Depression has become a highly prevalent mental health disorder. Alongside evidence-based interventions, there is an indication that adjunctive animal-assisted therapies can be efficacious in reducing the number and severity of symptoms, underscoring the potentially important role of the socially supportive and stress-reducing effects of companion animals.

Pixabay, Free download
Source: Pixabay, Free download

Although the period of childbirth and infant care is usually one of the most beautiful periods in a woman’s life, it is also associated with a particularly high risk of developing emotional/ mood problems that, in some cases, persist. Numerous factors can contribute to the development of postpartum depression–a serious mental health problem that negatively affects not only the mother's quality of life and relationships, but also her child’s development. Currently, there are no studies available on the effect of companion animals on postpartum depression symptoms yet, findings on pet animal-human relationships being analogous to child-parent attachment suggest that individual differences in attitudes towards pets may be related to differences in risk for development of postpartum depression symptoms. 

Seven hundred and fifteen women between the ages of 18-35 years participated in the questionnaire study. The questionnaire consisted of several parts, beyond assessing demographic data, questions also targeted the extent to which respondents felt supported by their environment, their feelings and thoughts about maternity, as well as past and present pet ownership and attitudes towards their pet. Mothers with a child aged three years old or younger were also asked about postpartum depression symptoms. 

The results show that among those mothers who perceive maternity as a burdensome role, postpartum depression symptoms are more common in cases when they also have to care for a companion animal. Mothers who are also responsible for a companion animal find motherhood more burdensome than mothers who live without a companion animal.

 Associations among attitudes towards motherhood, pet-keeping, and postpartum depression symptoms, open access.
Probability of postpartum depression feelings
Source: From: Associations among attitudes towards motherhood, pet-keeping, and postpartum depression symptoms, open access.

Owners with more positive attitudes toward companion animals find motherhood more difficult than those with a more negative approach. These associations suggest that there is a connection between women’s feelings and thoughts regarding companion animals and motherhood, namely, companion animals and children play a similar role in some respects in their lives.

According to Nóra Bunford (Lendület Research Group), it is a key and promising finding that childless women who own a pet perceive motherhood as less difficult than childless women who do not have an animal. This observation suggests that pets may have beneficial effects on infertility in women with psychogenically- or psychosomatically-driven infertility.

Certainly, this research is only a first step towards understanding when and for whom the presence of a companion animal can be helpful or be a source of difficulty for owners caring for an infant or young child. With proper family planning, taking into account the presence of a companion animal, it is possible for women to receive as much emotional support as possible from the pets with whom they live.

Many thanks Ádám for taking the time to write a summary of this unique project. You and your colleagues have covered a lot of ground, and among the significant findings that caught my eye are:

  • First-time mothers who live with a companion animal perceive motherhood as less difficult than first-time mothers who don't. 
  • Women with more positive attitudes toward companion animals find motherhood more difficult than those with more negative attitudes.

References

Temesi, A., Bunford, N., & Miklósi, Á. Associations among attitudes towards motherhood, pet-keeping, and postpartum depression symptoms. BIOLOGY FUTURA, 2020.

1) The abstract for this study reads: Certain companion animals’ relationship to humans is analogous to child–parent attachment. Further, pet-keeping is associated with less physical and psychological health problems and animal-assisted interventions ameliorate depressive symptoms. Accordingly, cognitive representations of pet-keeping and parenthood may be related, and pet-keeping may protect against postpartum depression symptoms (PPDS). To test these hypotheses, we examined cognitive representations of pet-keeping and motherhood as well as various cognitive correlates of those in 715 women in an online questionnaire. Results indicate that among women who perceive maternity as a burdensome role, pet ownership is associated with an increased likelihood of having had PPDS. Among women with children, pet owners perceive maternity as more burdensome than non-owners and pet owners with a more positive attitude towards their pets are more likely to find maternity as a burdensome role. These findings suggest a relationship between women’s thoughts regarding pets and motherhood and also that, to some degree, women perceive pets as playing a similar role as children. Importantly, childless women who own a pet perceived motherhood as less difficult; this effect of pet-keeping can be capitalized upon in the treatment of women whose psychological characteristics play a role in their infertility.