Lots of research has indicated that having a dog or a cat can help people live happier, healthier lives. But it's been unclear whether there really is a cause-and-effect relationship between pet ownership and better physical and mental health.
Now, new research adds further evidence that the benefits of having a canine or feline companion are real and broad.
A team of psychologists from Miami University and Saint Louis University conducted a series of studies aimed at trying to tease out the benefits of pet ownership.
In the first part of the research, 217 people answered detailed questionnaires online designed to determine whether pet owners tend to be different from people who do not own pets. The survey assessed variables such as depression, loneliness, self-esteem, illness, activity level and how people related to others.
The researchers found that pet owners tended to be less lonely, have higher self-esteem, get more exercise and be more extroverted and less fearful about getting close to other people.
In the second study, the researchers gathered detailed information about how 56 dog owners related to their dogs and to other people. The owners tended to get the most benefit from having a canine companion when their dogs "complemented rather than competed" with humans in their lives, the researchers found.
"We repeatedly observed evidence that people who enjoyed greater benefits from their pets also were closer to other important people in their lives and received more support from them, not less," the researchers wrote.
In the last experiment, researchers manipulated the social circumstances of 97 undergraduates: They induced a sense of loneliness and isolation for some and then "observed how thinking about their pet may stave off feelings of negativity in the wake of social rejection."
They found that "one's pet was every bit as effective as one's best friend in staving off social needs deficits in the wake of rejection."