New research on German dog owners finds that people with stronger relationships to their pets display more symptoms of mental disorders and distress, but proposes that this link may be fully accounted for by insecure attachment to other humans. The study was published in BMC Psychiatry.
Pet ownership has long been linked to better mental health and lower levels of negative conditions such as loneliness and depression, both in the general population and in patients with physical and mental disorders. However, such findings have not been consistent as other studies reported zero or even negative effects of pet ownership on physical and mental health.
A different line of research has linked emotional attachment to pets to problems in interpersonal relationships. One such study found that people with stronger attachment to pets reported lower levels of social support and higher levels of loneliness and depression. Another one found strong attachment to pets to be associated with childhood trauma and certain psychopathological traits. These results led authors of the new study to focus on the relationship between interpersonal attachment styles (i.e. what kinds of relationships with others are we comfortable in), attachment to pets and mental health.
Study author Johanna Lass‑Hennemann and her colleagues conducted an online survey of 610 German dog owners to test the hypothesis that stronger emotional attachment to one’s dog is associated with higher mental health burden and insecure attachment to humans. They also aimed to “disentangle the link between emotional attachment to pets and human attachment and their perspective associations with mental health burden.”
The researchers recruited respondents by distributing the link to their survey on webpages for dog owners and on social media. Study participants recruited in this way were mostly females (93%) between 18 and 73 years of age. They were asked to provide certain demographic data and dog-related information about themselves, but also to complete assessments of attachment to pets (Lexington Attachment to Pets Scale, LAPS), interpersonal attachment styles (Revised Adult Attachment Scale, R-AAS) and of symptoms of mental disorders and distress or the mental health burden, to use the words of authors (Brief Symptom inventory, BSI).
Respondents who were more strongly attached to their dogs reported more symptoms of mental disorders and distress. Additionally, a stronger emotional attachment to one’s dog was associated with lower comfort with depending and trusting others (the dependence component of interpersonal attachment) and to a greater fear of being rejected and unloved (the anxiety component of interpersonal attachment). These were, in turn, associated with more pronounced symptoms of mental disorders and distress (mental health burden).
Results also indicated that interpersonal attachment styles may be mediating the association between the emotional attachment to the dog and mental health burden, as it fully accounted for the link between the later two factors. Authors conclude that “stronger emotional attachment to pets might reflect a compensatory attachment strategy for people who were not able to establish secure relationships to other people during childhood. Those people may build more close relationships with pets that might be perceived as more reliable and less threatening.”
These result highlight important links between emotional attachment and mental health. However, this was a correlation study and, therefore, it cannot be the basis for cause-and-effect interpretations. Almost all of the participants were women and the results might differ somewhat on a sample of men. The authors also noted that the assessment method for emotional attachment to dog used in the study assesses the intensity of attachment, but not the attachment style. Assessing the style of attachment to pet alongside intensity might provide novel insights in future studies.
The paper, “The relationship between attachment to pets and mental health: the shared link via attachment to humans“, was authored by Johanna Lass‑Hennemann, Sarah K. Schäfer, M. Roxanne Sopp, and Tanja Michael.