2012-02-29 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Psssst...Come closer. Here’s the truth about cats and dogs: Pets are good for the mental health of “everyday people,” not just individuals facing health challenges. It seems thinking about one’s pet is as beneficial as thinking about friends. These claims are according to research published by the American Psychological Association (APA) last year. The following contains excerpts from that APA press release:

This study found pet owners were just as close to key people in their lives as to their animals, indicating no evidence that relationships with pets came at the expense of relationships with other people, or that people relied more on pets when their human social support was poorer.

Psychologists at Miami University and Saint Louis University conducted three experiments to examine the potential benefits of pet ownership among what they called everyday people. The results were reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in July 2011.

“We observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than non-owners on several dimensions,” said lead researcher Allen R. McConnell, PhD, of Miami University in Ohio. “Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious and were more extroverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.”

Remember the Psych 101 adage- “Correlation doesn’t mean causation”? Until now, most research into the benefits of pets has been “correlational,” meaning it looked at the relationship between two variables but didn’t show that one caused the other. For example, prior research showed that elderly Medicare patients with pets had fewer doctor visits than similar patients without pets, or that HIV-positive men with pets were less depressed than those without.

In the first study, 217 people (79% women, mean age 31, mean annual family income $77,000) answered surveys aimed at determining whether pet owners in the group differed from people who didn’t have pets in the areas of well-being, personality type and attachment style. Several differences between the groups emerged, and in all cases, pet owners were happier, healthier and better adjusted than were nonowners.

A second experiment, involving 56 dog owners (91% women, with a mean age of 42 and average annual family income of $65,000), examined whether pet owners benefit more when their pet is perceived to fulfill their social needs better. This study found greater well-being among owners whose dogs increased their feelings of belonging, self-esteem and meaningful existence.

The last study, comprising 97 undergraduates with an average age of 19, found that pets can make people feel better after experiencing rejection. Subjects were asked to write about a time when they felt excluded. Then they were asked to write about their favorite pet, or to write about their favorite friend, or to draw a map of their campus. The researchers found that writing about pets was just as effective as writing about a friend when it came to staving off feelings of rejection.

“The findings present considerable evidence that pets benefit the lives of their owners, both psychologically and physically, by serving as an important source of social support,” the researchers wrote. “Whereas past work has focused primarily on pet owners facing significant health challenges, this study establishes that there are many positive consequences for everyday people who own pets.”

And now to stick in my two cents’ worth. The American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C. is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the US and is the world’s largest association of psychologists. Although I am not a statistician, it appears that outside of the undergrad study, this sample is skewed toward female pet owners, so perhaps this sense of emotional and social well-being derived from interacting and thinking about one’s pets is a tad bit more beneficial for women.

Besides boosting belonging, self-esteem and meaningful existence as cited by the researchers, pets can also offer a sense of identity to their owners. Some folks define themselves by the roles they play. When I retired from teaching some of my colleagues had difficulty adjusting to the fact that they were no longer educators. I didn’t feel that lack of purpose because in some ways this column still allows me to teach and preach about pets.

I consider myself a dog owner, and more specifically an Afghan Hound aficionado. In the last 32 years there was only one month without a dog, overlapping 16 months without an Afghan, because two wonderful males had died of old age within a year. When our Toy Spaniel mix came into our lives as part of the 2003 Lindenhurst SPCA raid, she quickly filled the void for a loving canine companion, but to be honest, something was still missing. I didn’t feel “complete” or myself until an Afghan in need appeared on the horizon the next year. The late Roger Caras was so right when he said: “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”

For Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter (631-643- 9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: “Blossom” #12-108 is a young Beagle with an unusual color pattern picked up as a stray in Deer Park. The kittens-“Jack & Jill” #20958/59 don’t want to go down the hill. They want to go to a home.

Male: “Freddy” the handsome longhaired tuxedo in the Cat Colony; black Lab #12-84 puppy found at Belmont Lake.

Female: “Charlotte” #12-57 Shih tzu; “Hope” #94561 Shepherd mix; “Delilah” American Bulldog; “Lucy” Lab mix; “Diamond” #12-85 sweet Pit found with the black Lab pup.

** Low Cost Vaccine Clinic for dogs and cats on Sun. March 3 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Last Hope Adoption Center, 3300 Beltagh Ave. in Wantagh. $5 rabies; $12 canine and feline distemper; $12 canine bordatella. No appointment necessary. Call 516-417- 0222 or 631-205-5069 for more info.

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