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Pets and Mental Health

Although pet keeping is not culturally universal, it exists in most societies. The role that pets play in a person’s life is significant, with many potential health outcomes including improved mental and physical health. Specifically, these outcomes can include reducing stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms, providing emotional support, reducing loneliness, boosting self-esteem, encouraging social interaction, and increasing comforting tactile sensations. In fact, a recent study conducted in Singapore in 2020 found that pet ownership has several significant associations with physical activity levels and mental health conditions in certain subgroups. More specifically, pet owners reported higher physical activity level as compared to non-pet owners, likely due to pet-related activities that owners have to engage in with their pets especially with dogs. Having more physical activities is not just important for physical heath but also for mental health. For example, physical activities can help to strengthen neurons in the brain and produce “feel good” feelings, as well as bring people out of isolation when they take their pets out and interact with other pet owners. 

The study also found that individuals over the age of 35 benefitted more from pet ownership in terms of emotional wellbeing, energy level and social functioning, suggesting that a meaningful engagement with pets is needed for increased mental health benefits. It may be that more matured individuals are able to better invest, care for and nurture their pets leading to a closer emotional bond with them. Moreover, individuals who were not married also appeared to have benefitted from having pets as companions, as living alone for long periods of time is likely to increase a sense of loneliness which in turn predisposes them to depressive symptoms. 

Owning a pet can provide a sense of purpose, meaning, and responsibility for these individuals and help enrich their lives thereby reducing a sense of loneliness for them. In fact, another study conducted in the USA in 2016 found that pet owners experienced a higher level of satisfaction in their lives compared with non-pet owners. High overall life satisfaction, along with more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions, are the three core components of happiness. Life satisfaction, which is considered a cognitive component of happiness, has been shown to be more resistant to adaptation; thus, even though pet owners may eventually “get over” their initial higher level of positive emotions after they have had their pets for some time, the established relationship and emotional bonds with their pets continue to provide them with overall life satisfaction despite the plateauing of positive emotional experiences.  

Another interesting finding is that pets can play an important role in providing social support that can improve people’s mental and physical health when they are being viewed and treated as a member of the family. Having social connection is convincingly one of the most basic human need and the most potent human motive; without it, individuals are likely to experience poorer mental and physical health. Individuals are likely to experience more social support when they ascribe human attributes to their pets by perceiving them as having socially supportive attributes, thereby leading to the experience of social connection with them and improved mental and physical health. Research as shown that when people expand on their family network and included more entities, including persons and pets, in their construal of family, they are likely to experience increased wellbeing. In support of this view, a study conducted in 2019 in the USA found that when owners saw their pets as family members, they also formed meaningful social connection with them which improved their mental health and wellbeing. 

In sum, human interactions with animals have existed since the dawn of time. Although it may seem challenging to explain precisely how pets can make one feel happier, it is important to recognise the role that pets play in almost every aspect of our psychological and cultural lives. The companionship that dedicated pet owners receive from their pets is so invaluable that they would not trade their money for. 

The Pawmise sends a great thank you to Chad Yip for contributing this wonderful psych article!

Chad Yip is a registered clinical psychologist who provides psychological assessment and treatment for children, adolescents and adults. He is the Head of Psychology at Neurowyzr Pte Ltd, a neuroscience company specialising in brain health. He is involved in clinical work, product development and research. He is committed to serve the ever-changing needs of the individual and society.