My “Pet” Project

In Life with dogs, Pets, Well-being on Tuesday, 11 September 2012 at 06:22

This is a paper (edited) that I wrote as part of my proposal for my dissertation.  Unfortunately, I was told my topic was not “scientifically relevant” and I ended up having to choose a different topic.  I find it quite ironic that, recently, there has been a great deal of research (even in the mainstream press) about living with pets and the impact they have on our lives.  Maybe I will  carry out my study anyway one day…


Pet Ownership Benefits: A Brief Review of the Literature

Lorie Ederr


In the year 2006, Americans shared their homes with 68 million dogs, 73 million cats, 19 million birds, 19 million pocket pets, 9 million reptiles, and 165 million fish (Frischman, 2007).  Additionally, Americans spend approximately $36.3 billion on their pets annually on things such as food, veterinary care, boarding, and gifts (Densa, 2007).  While pets are an important part of many American’s lives, research regarding all aspects of pets (ranging from the benefits of pet ownership to pet bereavement) has been seemingly absent from the empirical literature.

Animal studies progresses without the blessing of mainstream clinical psychology.  Although authors publish in a variety of journals, relatively little appears in academic clinical psychology journals…it is not clear whether this “furry ceiling” is due to Animal Studies professionals being affiliated with areas other than clinical psychology, academics not submitting to clinical journals, or to journals’ being reluctant, for content or research designs, to publish work in this field.  Funding for research appears scarce and tends to be internal or from humane organizations (Raupp, 2002, p. 355).

While research on animal abuse and resulting conduct disordered behavior has been given some attention, research related to more positive aspects of companion animals and the use of therapy animals is scant (Raupp, 2002).  Raupp (2002) searched the PsychINFO database for “animal-assisted therapy” and did not find any references in clinical psychology journals, although a broader search found references in health service journals.  Additionally, a search of about 30 clinical journals for references to “animal abuse,” “animal collectors,” and “animal-assisted therapy” showed only three references for the years 1991 through 2001 (Raupp, 2002).  Furthermore, it appears that the majority of references are older and there is a lack of current empirical research on this topic.  As stated above, there is scant research on the positive aspects of pet ownership and how pets positively affect peoples’ lives.  This study attempts to determine whether or not pet ownership is related to an increase in overall well-being.

Do people that own pets evidence higher overall well-being scores than non pet-owners?  The literature is not abundant in this area and the studies have conflicting data based on sample demographics (elderly versus adult; low SES vs. higher SES; attachment to pet).  This literature review is designed a meager attempt to answer that question.  Allen, Blaskovich, Tomaka, and Kelsey. (1991) were interested in exploring the differences for women who were exposed to a stress task alone in a lab and again at home in the presence of a pet, a friend, or neither varied in their autonomic responses.  They found that autonomic reactivity was moderated by the presence of a companion, the nature of whom was critical to the size and direction of the effect.  Ss in the friend condition exhibited higher physiological reactivity and poorer performance than subjects in the control and pet conditions.  Ss in the pet condition showed less physiological reactivity during stressful tasks than Ss in the other conditions (Allen, et al., 1991, p. 582).

Demello (1999) showed that the presence of a pet after the termination of cognitive stressors resulted in reduction in heart rate and blood pressure than when the pet was not present.  Garrity, Stallones, Marx, and Johnson (1989) discovered that, in people aged 65 and older, “pet ownership failed to predict depression and illness behavior, while pet attachment significantly predicted depression but not illness experience” (p. 35).  Ory & Goldberg (1983) found that pet possession and well-being in elderly women evidenced a positive correlation when the attachment to the pet was strong and the women had a higher SES.  Sable (1995) concluded that “pets may supply ongoing comfort and reduce feelings of loneliness during adversity or stressful transitions such as divorce or bereavement.  They can also provide an opportunity to nurture others.”  Serpell (1990) established that pet owners reported a significant reduction in minor health problems at one and ten months following pet acquisition, as well as improvements in psychological well-being and self-esteem.  Siegel (1990) discovered that “respondents who owned pets reported fewer doctor contacts over the 1-year period than respondents who did not own pets.  Furthermore, pets seemed to help their owners in times of stress” (p. 1081).

Conflicting studies also exist.  Johnson and Rule (1991) hypothesized that “pet owners may be perceived by the general public as more lively, extraverted, and social, with higher self-esteem than non-owners even if this is not true” because of a “social stereotype” that illustrates the consensus of public opinion, not actual research, on the subject of the positive benefits of pet ownership (p. 249).  Straede and Gates (1993) studied 92 cat owners and 70 non-owners and did not find significant differences for owners versus non-owners on measures of depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, nurturance, social desirability, or life events.  Parslow, Jorm, Christensen, Rodgers, and Jacomb (2005) used survey information for 2,551 individuals aged 60-64 years and who did or did not own pets.  Parslow, et al. (2005) discovered that “female pet owners reported worse physical health than their counterparts who did not have any pets” (p. 45).  It was also discovered that pet owners reported a higher incidences of usage of pain medications than non-owners (Parslow, et al., 2005).  Another finding from the Parslow, et al. study (2005) was that “owning or caring for a pet was not associated with any reduction in numbers of GP services obtained over a 12-month period” (p. 45).   Moreover, “an unexpected finding was that owners and carers of pets reported significantly higher levels of psychoticism than non-owners and non-carers” (Parslow, et al., 2005, p. 46).  The authors concluded that “there are no health benefits associated with pet ownership for this age group” (Parslow, et al., 2005, p. 47).  Johnson and Rule (1991) compared pet owners and non-owners on self-esteem, extraversion, neuroticism, and social self-esteem.  Findings indicated that no significant differences were found between the two groups in any of the areas (self-esteem, extraversion, neuroticism, and social self-esteem) and that “theorists may tend to rely on assumed stereotypical personality traits of pet owners, creating false assumptions about the therapeutic effects of pets” (Johnson & Rule, 1991, p. 250).  Tucker, Friedman, Tsai, and Martin (1995) examined longitudinal data of 643 men and women with a mean age of 67 and discovered that playing with pets was not associated with better health and that those who reported playing with pets regularly did not have a lower mortality rate than those who did not interact with pets.  The authors concluded that “the present results do not support previous research that has found an association between human-pet interaction and physical health” (Tucker, et al., 1995, p. 6).  Hirsch and Whitman (1994) found that pet owners reported more headaches and chronic pain than non-owners.

Statement of the Problem

Millions of Americans share their homes with companion animals although the benefits and positive aspects of doing so have received little attention in the literature up to this point.  Studies that have been conducted relating to pet ownership are dated and more current research is needed.  As Raupp (2002) pointed out, very little was found in the academic clinical psychology journals related to companion animals, positive aspects of pet ownership, and animal-assisted therapy.  While it appears that pets are a major part of people’s lives, the research community does not seem to show a great interest in the effects companion animals have on all aspects of an individual’s life and development.  Outwardly, it would not appear that pets would be of great benefit to their owners.  Responsibilities such as caring for them, feeding them, obtaining necessary veterinary care, and the costs associated with having a pet would appear to be drawbacks for owners and reasons not to acquire a pet.  In spite of these “drawbacks,” Americans live with 68 million dogs, 73 million cats, 19 million birds, 19 million pocket pets, 9 million reptiles, and 165 million fish (Frischman, 2007).  The total amount Americans spent on their pets in 2006 was approximately $36.3 billion (Densa, 2007).  So, it would follow to that there are many benefits people gain from their pets despite costs, care, and related issues. The research community should show an interest in exactly what the specific benefits are as well as quantifying them.

Companion animals appear to be a very important part of many people’s lives.  While there are many anecdotal stories and personal experiences that support the benefits of pet ownership, the clinical research community should follow with empirical evidence to support these claims.  More research is needed looking at companion animals and the associated benefits to children, adolescents, adults, older people, and therapeutic populations.  Studies supporting companion animals’ positive effects, effects on child development, effects on empathy and prosocial behavior, and effects on physical and psychological health will hopefully lead to more positive attitudes towards animals as well as more humane treatment of animals, a decrease in animal abuse and neglect, and lead to less animals being killed in shelters every year.  Information regarding whether or not owning a pet contributes to one’s positive well-being would be important when determining therapeutic treatments for those who might be in danger of decreased feelings of well-being.  Research has repeatedly shown that sharing a home with a companion animal has positive effects (Allen, et al., 1991; Demello, 1999; Garrity, et al., 1989; Ory & Goldberg, Sable, 1995; Serpell, 1990) while others have found no correlation or a negative correlation (Hirsch & Whitman, 1994; Johnson & Rule, 1991; Parslow, Jorm, Christensen, Rodgers, & Jacomb, 2005; Straede & Gates, 1993; Tucker, Friedman, Tsai, & Martin, 1995).



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Garrity, T., Stallones, L., Marx, M. & Johnson, T.  (1989).  Pet ownership as supportive factors in the health of the elderly.   Anthrozoos, 3 (1), 35-44.


Hirsch, A. & Whitman, B.  (1994).  Pet ownership and prophylaxis of headache and chronic pain.  Headache, 34, 542-543.


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Parslow, R., Jorm, A., Christensen, H., Rodgers, B., & Jacomb, P.  (2005).  Pet ownership and     health in older adults: Findings from a survey of 2,551 community-based Australians aged 60-64.  Gerontology, 51, 40-47.


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Tucker, J., Friedman, H., Tsai, C., & Martin, L.  (1995).  Playing with pets and longevity among older people.  Psychology and Aging, 10 (1), 3-7.




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