The Psychology of Pet Ownership

For years now, exhaustive psychological research and studies have concluded that a wealth of medical benefits exists for the individual who owns a pet. According to Abnormal Psychology (Comer, 2010), “social support of various kinds helps reduce or prevent depression. Indeed, the companionship and warmth of dogs and other pets have been found to prevent loneliness and isolation and, in turn, to help alleviate or prevent depression” (p. 260). Without companionship, people are far more likely fall into depression when life presents increased stress. An article in Natural Health summarizes the medical advantages of pet ownership by saying, “researchers have discovered that owning a pet can reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol; lower triglyceride levels; lessen stress; result in fewer doctor visits; and alleviate depression” (Hynes, 2005). Additionally, Hynes explains, “Infants who live in a household with dogs are less likely to develop allergies later in life, not only to animals but also to other common allergens.”

While immune system adaptation explains allergy prevention, a pet’s gift of reducing depression is multilayered. One of the most important components is touch therapy. The physical contact of petting a cat or dog provides a calming effect, comforting the owner and fighting off stress. The New York Times reports pets “provide a socially acceptable outlet for the need for physical contact. Men have been observed to touch their pets as often and as lovingly as women do” (1982). Physical touch in infancy is vital to normal brain development, and the need for contact continues into adulthood as a way to ease tension, express love, and feel loved. 

Another aspect of this phenomenon is unconditional love. Pets can provide people with love that is difficult or sometimes impossible to find from another person. In the article Pets for Depression and Health, Alan Entin, PhD, says unconditional love explains everything. “When you are feeling down and out, the puppy just starts licking you, being with you, saying with his eyes, ‘You are the greatest.’ When an animal is giving you that kind of attention, you can’t help but respond by improving your mood and playing with it” (Doheny, 2010). Pets are often the only source of true unconditional love a man or woman can find, and the feeling of being adored improves mood and self-confidence.

Not everyone is a pet person, which is why owning a pet will not be efficacious for everyone. Indeed, people who are already so depressed they cannot even take care of themselves will not see improvements. However, those who do take on the responsibility of owning a cat, dog, or any other little creature, will see reduced depression simply because they are responsible for another living being’s life. In an article in Reader’s Digest, Dr. Yokoyama Akimitsu, head of Kyosai Tachikawa Hospital’s psychiatric unit, says pets help by “creating a feeling of being needed” (2000). This need, this calling to take care of the pet, will give the owner a sense of importance and purpose. It also provides a distraction from one’s life problems. These elements work in concert to battle depression. 

Owning a pet also results in increased exercise and social contact with people. According to Elizabeth Scott, M.S., in her 2007 article How Owning a Dog or Cat Reduces Stress, dog owners spend more time walking than non-owners in urban settings. Exercise is known to burn stress. Furthermore, Scott says, “When we’re out walking, having a dog with us can make us more approachable and give people a reason to stop and talk, thereby increasing the number of people we meet, giving us an opportunity to increase our network of friends and acquaintances, which also has great stress management benefits.” Increased exercise will also lead to an improved sense of well-being due to endorphins released in the brain, and better sleep.

Finally, owning a pet simply staves off loneliness. Scott says, “They could be the best antidote to loneliness. In fact, research shows that nursing home residents reported less loneliness when visited by dogs than when they spent time with other people” (2007). Just by being there for their owners, pets eliminate feelings of isolation and sadness. They can serve as companions and friends to anyone suffering from mild or moderate depression.

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References

Brody, J. E. (1982, August 11). Owning a Pet Can Have Therapeutic Value. In The New York Times. Retrieved December 13, 2010, from http://www.nytimes.com/1982/08/11/garden/owning-a-pet-can-have-therapeutic-value.html?scp=1&sq=1982%20pets&st=cse

Comer, R. J.  (2010). Abnormal Psychology (7th Ed.). New York: Worth Publishers

Doheny, K. (2010, August 18). Pets for Depression and Health. In WebMD. Retrieved December 13, 2010, from http://www.webmd.com/depression/recognizing-depression-symptoms/pets-depression

Hynes, A. (2005, March). The Healing Power of Animals. In CBS Money Watch. Retrieved December 13, 2010, from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0NAH/is_3_35/ai_n9775602/

Scott, E. (2007, November 1). How Owning a Dog or Cat Can Reduce Stress. In About.com. Retrieved December 13, 2010, from http://stress.about.com/od/lowstresslifestyle/a/petsandstress.htm

Williams, M. (2000, August). Healing Power of Pets. In Reader’s Digest. Retrieved December 13, 2010, from http://www.drmartinwilliams.com/healingpets/healingpets.html