Despite a commonly held belief that companion animal (e.g., dogs) ownership contributes to improved psychological well-being, research findings have been inconclusive.
Dog Ownership and Mental Health
How can owning a dog help with mental health problems?
Physical activity and increased social supports (i.e., families and friends) have protective effects on mental health. It is possible that animals, particularly the family dog, might also be a source of social support and provide a potential buffer of stress and consequently lower levels of depression incidence in pet owners.
Also, dog walking is associated with increased physical activity levels, and physical activity is associated with improved mental health outcomes.
To test this hypothesis, a group of Australian researchers surveyed 1,023 people who were divided into two groups: dog owners (n=477) and non-owners (n=546). Researchers used questionnaires to assess participants’ level of stress and depression. Being a longitudinal study, participants were asked to complete one questionnaire at the start of the study, then two follow-up questionnaires at 1 year and three years, respectively.
Researchers found that there was a small trend towards dog ownership and increased depression, however the result was not significant. They also found non-significant associations between increased dog walking and lower levels of stress and depression. Specifically,
The odds of stress were slightly higher in dog owners than non-owners but non-significant.
Dog ownership was associated with higher odds of depression however the association was weak and non-significant.
A small beneficial effect of dog walking was detected on owners’ stress, but not depression. However, neither association was statistically significant.
Thus, researchers concluded that despite growing evidence of the physical health benefits from owning and walking a dog, there is no evidence of a longitudinal association between dog ownership or dog walking and the mental health outcomes of stress and depression.
Companion Animal Attachment and Mental Health
There have been arguments that when studying psychological implications of owning a companion animal (e.g., dogs), the focus needs to be on companion animal attachment, not just animal ownership. It is not the ownership status that is related to psychological well-being but the degree of attachment to a companion animal.
Companionship has been identified as the primary human benefit gained from living with an animal and has been acknowledged as significant in the fostering of psychological well-being.
To study the relationship between mental health and companion animal attachment, a group of researchers recruited 150 adults (aged 18 years or older) for a research study; each of the participants lived with a companion animal.
The majority of participants reported owning either a dog (71.8%) or both a dog and a cat (20.8%), with 6.8% reporting owning a cat and 0.7% owning neither (i.e., a horse).
The measurement of attachment level involves two criteria: time spend with companion animal (hours), and willingness to undergo surgery. For “willingness to undergo surgery,” participants were asked to answer the question “If your doctor advised you that you had to undergo surgery and it meant separation from your pet, would you go?”
In this study, researchers found that companion animal attachment did not moderate the effect of social isolation on psychological distress.
Additionally, companion animal attachment was shown to be a stronger predictor of
psychological distress than gender, marital status, age, and number of people within a household. However, researchers say it is difficult to establish the causal direction of the association identified.
Cui, Y., et al. “Longitudinal Evidence of the Impact of Dog Ownership and Dog Walking on Mental Health.” Journal of Public Health (Oxford, England), 2019 Nov 06, 2019, doi:10.1093/pubmed/fdz094.
Peacock, Jasmin, et al. “Mental Health Implications of Human Attachment to Companion
Animals.” Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol. 68, no. 3, 2012, pp. 292-303.