More than 50 years ago, Charles M. Schulz, creator of “Peanuts,” coined the term “Happiness is a warm puppy.” Schulz may have been more visionary than he recognized. Recent studies provide evidence to support the view that pet ownership is good for mental health.
In 3 intriguing studies, McConnell and colleagues1 examined the psychological and physiological effects of pet ownership. The aim of the first study was to determine whether there were differences in the well-being of pet owners compared with non-owners. The researchers asked 217 people in the community with and without pets to complete well-being and personality measures. Pet owners were found to have greater self-esteem and greater levels of exercise and physical fitness, and they were less lonely than non-owners. They were also found to be more conscientious, more extroverted, less fearful, and less preoccupied than non-owners. Importantly, pet ownership was not a substitute for human interaction, since there was no difference between pet owners and non-owners in ratings of closeness to others and social support from family and friends.
The second study sought to determine whether the magnitude of well-being was related to pet owners’ perception that their pet fulfilled their social needs. Fifty-six dog owners participated in a Web-based study. The more their dogs fulfilled the owners’ social needs, the better the well-being of the owners. Of note, this finding held true for all pet owners, not just for those who lacked social support.
The third study looked at whether pets can serve as a buffer to negative feelings associated with social isolation and rejection. In this laboratory-based experimental study, the 97 participants were pet owners. Participants in the rejection condition of this study were asked to write for 5 minutes about an experience in which they felt excluded or rejected and how they felt at that time. Following the social rejection task, one group of participants was asked to write about their favorite pet and why they liked the pet. Another group was asked to write about their favorite friend and why they liked their friend. A third group was asked to draw a map. Pets were found to be as effective as friends in reducing negative emotions from rejection.
Dog ownership has been linked to increased physical activity among adolescents.2 A total of 618 adolescents, those who did and who did not own dogs, participated in the study. Physical activity was assessed for 7 days with an ActiGraph accelerometer. The adolescents who owned a dog had significantly more daily minutes of moderate to vigorous activity than the adolescents who did not own a dog. Sedentary behavior was not associated with dog ownership. The authors suggest that active play with the dog may have contributed to the increased number of minutes that the adolescent engaged in physical activity, in addition to walking the dog.
In my clinical practice, I routinely ask children and adolescents whether they have pets and to tell me about them. I generally ask these questions at the beginning of a diagnostic evaluation. A discussion about pets helps establish rapport. It also helps relieve concerns children may have that their problems or “bad behavior” will be the entire focus of the clinical interview. Children often become quite animated when discussing the antics of their pets.
Inevitably, children who do not have pets lunge into a discussion of how much they want a dog or a cat. They provide compelling reasons for their desire for a pet. Their explanations as to why they don’t have a pet provide some useful clinical information. For example, one teenager stated that his father believes he is too irresponsible for a pet; another child stated that his mother said, “2 kids are too much and we don’t need a dog.”
Pets can fulfill social needs for children with few friends. For depressed children, a dog or a cat may be their only social connectedness during an episode of depression. One teenager told me his dog was his lifeline in the midst of his despair from depression. Another child who was being ostracized at school said that dogs are nicer than people. Spending time with her dog reduced her loneliness because “at least somebody really likes me and wants to play with me.”
Although pets are not a substitute for interaction with peers, pets can help buffer social isolation until the child’s condition improves or his social skills are enhanced. Beyond fulfilling social needs, pets can be good for a child’s development. They foster caring, compassion, and responsibility. Pets teach us about reciprocity in relationships and the depths of love. Pets leave an indelible mark on children that is carried throughout adulthood. Adults who are reminded of a beloved childhood dog or cat often experience a flood of intense emotions and wistfully think, “how I loved that dog (or cat)!”
The raising of pets is a time-consuming and costly process—one that adds an additional burden on parents. But pets bring out our humanity in a unique way. Children can benefit greatly from the experience of having a pet and developing a lasting bond of love with an animal.