LONDON — Stress is unavoidable, but certain people deal with stressful scenarios and unexpected situations better than others. According to researchers from Kingston University, having a pet can help those who struggle to remain calm under pressure cope with stress.
However, study authors note pet parenthood isn’t always ideal. If a person considers their pet more important than their human friends, it can lead to increased feelings of loneliness.
Psychology student Ece Beren Barklam investigated if having a pet has a connection to better mental well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers also accounted for owners’ perceptions of their own resilience levels, as well as how emotionally attached they felt to their pets.
Study authors conducted their research using two surveys completed by over 700 participants (from both the U.K. and around the world). The first survey took place during the early stages of the pandemic in May 2020, while the second took place in September 2021.
All in all, the findings indicate pets had a mostly positive effect on the lives of their owners during the pandemic. The more an owner interacted with their pet — by going for walks or playing more often — the higher their mental health scores rose. Owners who spent more time interacting with their animals reported feeling happier than other participants.
Bonding with pets can sometimes be unhealthy
The study also analyzed how emotionally attached owners were to their pets, finding that unhealthy attachments did indeed have an association with poorer mental health. Healthy attachments, meanwhile, improved well-being among individuals with low resilience.
“It’s commonly believed pets are good for humans. While research partly supports this, I wanted to understand what role people’s individual characteristics such as resilience play in the relationship between pet ownership and positive or negative mental health,” the PhD student says in a university release.
“Where the owner considers their pet to be more important than the people in their lives, the study found they were lonelier, unhappier, and less resilient. They also scored lower when it came to overall mental wellbeing. This type of attachment may reflect an unhealthy bond, where the owner treats their pet as if it has human motives and traits, which could be a kind of anthropomorphism.”
Barklam’s PhD supervisor, associate professor in neurocognition and aesthetics Dr. Fatima Maria Felisberti, adds that the scientific ground covered by this project can help people better understand the role pets play in our everyday lives.
“We tend to over-simplify our view of why people have pets,” Dr. Felisberti adds. “Beren’s research highlights the complexities involved in such relationships.”
As part of her PhD work, Barklam is now conducting a second study focusing on how pets and human-animal interactions affect romantic relationships, friendships, and well-being.
The study is published in the journal Anthrozoös.