Friends With Benefits: Can Dogs Boost Self-Esteem?

Dogs for your health?
Dogs for your health?

Admittedly, I'm not a pet person, and I can think of many reasons dogs should be cleared from a beach teeming with babies and seniors on a hot July day. But based on a new study, “Friends With Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership,” published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it appears I'm probably not as well-adjusted as Sophie's owner, and the millions of other "everyday people," who are neither sick nor needy, but still consider their pets the best companion they'll ever have.

The study details earlier research showing pets can indeed help people with specific ailments and illnesses. For instance, the paper says, "research shows that pet owners are less likely to die within 1 year of having a heart attack than those who do not own pets." Moreover, the authors report: "lonely people are often advised to get a dog or a cat to alleviate social isolation, and even U.S. President Harry Truman purportedly said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” But in these new experiments, researchers suggest that you don't have to be needy or suffering from a medical condition to benefit from a cat or dog.

From the news release:

“We observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than non-owners on several dimensions,” said lead researcher Allen R. McConnell, PhD, of Miami University in Ohio. “Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.”

In this study, 217 people (79 percent women, mean age 31, mean annual family income $77,000) answered surveys aimed at determining whether pet owners in the group differed from people who didn’t have pets in the areas of well-being, personality type and attachment style. Several differences between the groups emerged, and in all cases, pet owners were happier, healthier and better adjusted than were non-owners.

Maybe I should stop being so annoyed at all the dogs on the beach and consider one of those cute little hypoallergenic Portuguese water dogs like the Obamas?

This program aired on July 11, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Rachel Zimmerman

Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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