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Pets with benefits
by Nathan Orme
Jan 11, 2011 | 845 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Courtesy Graphic/Billy Frank Alexander - 
Studies try to confirm that people who own pets have a higher quality of life than those who do not.
Courtesy Graphic/Billy Frank Alexander - Studies try to confirm that people who own pets have a higher quality of life than those who do not.
In their weekly e-mails about adoption promotions, the folks at the Nevada Humane Society always come up with clever slogans and quips to attract attention to what is otherwise the same plea: adopt homeless animals.

Last week’s idea was to associate adoption of a homeless pet with New Year’s exercise resolutions.

“Dogs remind you when it’s time to go for that invigorating walk and enjoy the workout with a gusto that few human companions can muster,” the NHS release states. “Cats are natural born yogis. If you doubt this, just watch the graceful poses as your kitty takes a bath. So pop that yoga video in and enjoy a nice cat-inspired work out!”

But how can you quantify the benefits of pet ownership?

“Studies have shown that people with pets live healthier, happier lives,” Nevada Humane Society Executive Director Bonney Brown wrote in an e-mail. “Pet owners report fewer minor health problems and greater psychological well-being than their non-pet owning peers.”

But how do you prove that? Any of us can say — and many of us do say it — that animals improve our lives in ways that are difficult to quantify. Some researchers, however, have tried to quantify that improvement using social science research methods. On this very topic, Brown recommended  the Delta Society, a Seattle-based organization that is a kind of clearinghouse for pet information. Posted on the Education & Research section of the group’s website are a series of abstracts of articles by various university researchers on the topics of how owning pets benefits humans. One of the articles is titled “A tail of two personalities: How canine companions shape relationships and well-being.” Lisa Cavanaugh, now a professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, was one of the article’s three authors. She sent a copy of it and stated it “examines how pet personality differentially influences relationship satisfaction and well-being.”

As with any academic paper, this one talks a lot about the methods the researchers used to analyze how owning pets affects owners’ lives — in this case paper surveying. In trying to measure how much pet ownership — particularly dog ownership — affects people’s lives for better or worse, the article takes into account numerous factors such as age, race, marital status, children in the home, etc. After trying to make sense of the data, I decided to skip ahead to some of the conclusions. A few things jumped out at me.

“Namely, participants report significantly higher relationship satisfaction when their dogs exceed their assessment of their own levels of openness, agreeableness and neuroticism,” the article states.

In other words, people are happy when their dogs show greater levels of these characteristics than they do.

“The data reveal significant relationships between well-being and length of ownership ... and the two-way interaction of length of ownership and overlap ….”

There was some data in that sentence that I won’t even try to explain, but the point was that the longer people own their pets the stronger the bond and effect on the person. Not a surprising statement in itself but later there was this: “With human relationships, relationship satisfaction tends to decline over time and contribute less to overall well-being .... With human-dog relationships, however, well-being appears to be greater in longer, close relationships.”

Ask any married couple and they’ll probably agree with this statement. However, a long and beneficial relationship with a dog does not necessarily mean that will translate to person-to-person interaction, the article states.

“Long-term relationships with ever-loyal dogs may provide greater stability, comfort and security, generally enhancing human well-being over time. Yet for others, an extremely close relationship developed over a shorter time period may hamper well-being. For these individuals, the relationship with the dog may surface the possibility of unmet needs in their human relationships or feelings of guilt related to neglect of or inability to develop relationships with others. A close, all-consuming relationship with a dog may even close individuals off from other human relationships, and thus, adversely affect well-being.”

This next paragraph, however, was a little more hopeful.

“Humans may take advantage of certain animal personalities to cultivate, complement, or fill voids in their own sense of identity. A close, extended relationship with a pet may allow a person to become more comfortable with his or her own identity. Growing comfort with self and learning to build satisfying relationships with a canine companion may even help individuals develop skills to navigate future human relationships.”

One other line was kind of interesting, though it could be read as belittling the role of the human in the human-canine relationship.

“In the present study, the dog’s personality clearly exerts a significant impact on relationship satisfaction while the personality of the human contributes little. In the social psychology literature, self personality generally contributes more to explaining relationship satisfaction than does partner personality ... so this finding is especially intriguing.”

Perhaps Brown put it best, with no research involved.

“Then of course there is the simple joy pets bring into our lives,” she wrote. “They live in the moment and make us laugh. Their non-judgmental companionship is something that can be hard to find elsewhere.”

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