Pet owners living alone enjoy better emotional health if only they receive a high level of social support. Otherwise owning pets doesn't necessarily drive away loneliness, a Canadian study shows.
Researchers have examined the relationship between pet ownership and psychological health among individuals in the general population, but the few studies that have examined the possible psychological health benefits of pet ownership for individuals living alone have primarily been conducted among subgroups such as seniors.
Melanie Rock, a researcher with the University of Calgary's faculties of medicine and veterinary medicine and colleagues hypothesized that pet ownership (pet vs. no pet), emotional attachment levels to pets, and human social support would interact to predict scores on measures of loneliness and depression.
A sample of 132 Canadian dog and cat owners as well as non-owners who lived alone completed an on-line survey containing measures of human social support, emotional attachment to pets, loneliness, and depression.
Results revealed that neither pet ownership nor attachment to pets predicted the loneliness or depression levels of individuals living alone. However, when the researchers examined the interaction of pet ownership and human social support in the prediction of psychological health, simple effects revealed that dog owners with high levels of human social support were significantly less lonely than non-owners.
Furthermore simple effects revealed that among pet owners with low levels of human social support, high attachment to pets predicted significantly higher scores on loneliness and depression.
"These findings highlight the complex nature of the relationship between pet ownership and psychological health," the researchers wrote in a study published in Anthrozoos, a journal about the interaction between animals and humans,
"Pet care is an important way that people are acquiring and processing information about health," said study author Melanie Rock.
"What we see here is a significant public health opportunity," Rock said. "Pets are increasingly important in the lives of Canadians. More than half of Canadian households have a pet. We want to leverage this powerful cultural trend toward better human health."
People who have pets with a chronic health problem such as diabetes are more likely to take better care of themselves. Similarly, people with health problems tend to apply their knowledge if they notice similar symptoms in their pets.
Study participant Daniela Trnka was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 20 years ago. When she noticed signs of the same illness in her Siberian Husky Cooper, she used her own blood sugar testing kit to investigate, CBC News reported.
"His blood sugar was 22. So I knew right away that it was diabetes," said Trnka, whose veterinarian confirmed the diagnosis.
"Having to test his blood sugar gets me out of bed to test my own levels. On a cold, windy day he gets me outside in the fresh air because I know the exercise is good for him."
The study's findings demonstrate that it would be useful to include veterinarians in public health initiatives, and to have family doctors consider pets as an educational tool as they talk with patients about their own health, according to Rock.