Dog is said to be man’s best friend, but does pet ownership actually improve quality of life? Though that is a popular belief, a study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that having a stronger relationship with your dog can actually be related to an increase in anxiety and depression.
Pet ownership can be a very significant bond for many people and dogs in particular are loyal companions to a great number of individuals. People seem to believe having a pet is good for mental health, but the research primarily pertains to therapy or service animals. Research focusing on normal pet ownership has produced mixed and complicated results. The new study sought to clarify the relationship between having a dog and people’s mental wellbeing.
“The general public and media portray dogs being overwhelmingly good for our mental health,” explained study author Carri Westgarth, a senior lecturer in Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Liverpool. “As someone who has owned numerous dogs who I believe have added happiness to my life, but also added stress and anxiety, I knew that the reality was more complex. I have also spent a long time helping owners of dogs with behavioral problems, who clearly find owning their dog very challenging.”
Westgarth and her colleagues utilized data from 1,693 dog owners recruited from the United Kingdom to serve as their sample. Participants were recruited online via social media. Participants completed a questionnaire that contained both open-ended and closed questions about their dogs, the relationship, their own physical and mental health, wellbeing, and demographics. Open-ended questions included reasons for acquiring their dog and how they believed having their dog is affecting their mental health.
The researchers found that people who had stronger bonds with their dog tended to have positive outcomes, including greater emotional support and companionship. But there were also some negative outcomes. People who had more interactions with their dogs had worse depression and higher levels of anxiety.
Open-ended questions revealed a lot of great outcomes of having a dog, including fostering self-acceptance, providing purpose, promoting enjoyment, and lessening emotional pain. Additionally, open-ended questions showed that some people may feel that meeting the dog’s needs is a burden.
“Although getting a dog can bring us benefits, such as motivation to exercise, fun, and companionship, it also brings challenges. It is not the solution for those suffering from depression and anxiety – in fact it may make it worse in some contexts,” Westgarth told PsyPost.
“Although many people said that having a dog helped them to manage some of their mental health symptoms, such as distraction from negative thoughts, and providing motivation, through instilling a routine and purpose, the burden of responsibility that comes from feeling the need to care for that dog can be overwhelming and prevent owners from socializing with other people as much as they may have done before.”
This study sought to dive deeper into the relationship between owning a dog and wellbeing. Despite its successes, there are also limitations to note. One such limitation is that causality cannot be determined in this study, and it is possible people with higher anxiety and depression are more likely to adopt a dog rather than vice versa. Additionally, this sample was predominantly female, which could limit generalizability.
“The main limitation of the study is that the data is cross-sectional at one point in time, so we don’t know whether having a stronger relationship with their dog causes owners to score higher on depression and anxiety, or whether having higher levels of depression and anxiety causes owners to seek out dog ownership and form a strong relationship with them,” Westgarth explained. “The qualitative data from the open text responses does suggest that both may be occurring.”
“More information about the dog-owner relationship and mental health can be found in my book: The Happy Dog Owner: Finding Health and Happiness with the Help of Your Dog.”
The study, “Dogs and the Good Life: A Cross-Sectional Study of the Association Between the Dog-Owner Relationship and Owner Mental Wellbeing“, was authored by Aikaterini Merkouri, Taryn M. Graham, Marguerite Elizabeth O’Haire, Rebecca Purewal, and Carri Westgarth.