A team of scientists from Michigan State University (MSU) in the US, who wanted to determine a link between pet ownership and well-being, found that the two were not reliably associated. They further found that the association ‘largely’ did not depend on the number and species of pets owned, the quality of the human-pet relationship, or the owner’s psychological characteristics.
The researchers did, however, find pet owners reporting that their pets improved their lives. Their study is published in the journal, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. For the study, the research team recruited 767 people from a larger group of volunteers who completed online surveys every two weeks from March 27 onward in 2020 for the international study, Love in the Time of COVID. For this specific research, the team included only those participants from the international study who responded to a question on pet ownership during the fourth wave of data collection - “How many pets do you have?”
The study employed both qualitative and quantitative analyses, allowing the researchers to look at several indicators of the participants’ well-being and also ask them to reflect on the role of pets in their lives, which was an open-ended question.
The team found the pet owners reporting that pets made them happy and that their pets helped them feel more positive emotions, along with providing affection and companionship. The owners also reported negative aspects of pet ownership like being worried about their pet’s well-being and having their pets interfere with working remotely, the researchers said.
However, when the pet owners’ happiness was compared to that of non-pet owners, the researchers found no difference in the well-being of the two study groups over time. They also found that it did not matter what type of pet was owned, how many pets were owned or how close they were with their pet. The personalities of the owners too were found to play a role.
“People say that pets make them happy, but when we actually measure happiness, that doesn’t appear to be the case,” said William Chopik, co-author of the study and associate professor in MSU’s Department of Psychology. “People see friends as lonely or wanting companionship, and they recommend getting a pet. But it’s unlikely that it’ll be as transformative as people think,” said Chopik. Upon exploring several reasons for why this might be the case, the scientists said one of them could be that non-pet owners may have filled their lives with a variety of other things that make them happy.
“Staking all of your hope on a pet making you feel better is probably unfair and is maybe costly given other things you could do in your life that could improve your happiness,” said Chopik. “Our findings are consistent with a large body of research showing null associations of pet ownership on well-being (quantitatively) but positive reports of pet ownership (qualitatively),” the researchers wrote in their study.