Scientists Discover Why You Love Your Dog

The benefits of having a dog are well worth all the feeding, walking, cleaning, and slobber, a new study suggests.

July 12, 2011

Have you ever felt that your cat or dog is more of a friend than a pet? Good news…you're not crazy! Pets really do give us some of the benefits we get from friends and other strong social relationships. Researchers from the Universities of Miami and St. Louis examined the effects that pets have on their people, and found that pet owners considered themselves just as close with their pets as they did with their close (human) friends. Previous studies have investigated the benefits pets bring to owners facing health-related problems. In this case, the researchers completed three experiments to understand the benefits of pets for the general population.

• One experiment surveyed 217 people, comparing pet owners and nonowners in the areas of well-being, personality type, and attachment style. Pet owners were happier, healthier, and better adjusted than those without pets.

• A second study involved 56 dog owners. The data showed strong evidence that pet owners felt increased feelings of belonging, self-esteem, and meaningful existence when their pet fulfilled their social needs.


• A third study was conducted with 97 undergraduate students. Participants were first told to write about a time they felt excluded. They then were told to write about a pet or a friend, or draw a map of their campus. The study found that the two writing options—whether about pets or friends—were equally effective in easing feelings of rejection.

Lead researcher Allen R. McConnell, PhD, of Miami University in Ohio, summarized the findings with this statement: “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 nonowners.”

The researchers also reported finding no evidence that being close with a pet impeded other relationships, or that the subjects relied more on their pets for social support.

A pet prescription can remedy all sorts of problems, says animal expert Arden Moore. Spending time around animals, such as going bird watching, enjoying the company of a therapy dog, or even playing with your pet spider can be beneficial to your well-being. “There’s something about the animal kingdom that possesses the ability for us to enjoy life a little better,” says Moore, author of more than 20 pet books and radio host of Oh Behave, an online Pet Life Radio show. Read on for five reasons to include some animal time in your day.

#1: They relax you
Petting your cat or dog may be noticeably enjoyable for them, but the act can relax you as well. Moore suggests petting with a purpose to increase the release of feel-good hormones in animals and humans. “Give your dog or cat a head-to-tail therapeutic massage by running hand over hand through the body,” she says. Your touch relaxes the animal and releases feel-good endorphins in you, reducing your heart rate. A therapeutic pet massage can also be used to regularly check animals for fleas or suspicious bumps, or to relieve muscle knots, says Moore.

#2: They reduce blood pressure
Communicating with animals may lower your blood pressure and improve your overall health. Moore suggests engaging animals in “happy talk,” or speaking in an upbeat tone. “Happy talk or laughter around animals releases hormones in humans that lower blood pressure, and make animals feel better too,” she says. Thinking happy thoughts when talking to your pet or speaking to birds and squirrels in your backyard may seem silly, but the conversation can put you at ease (even if it's one-sided).

#3: They’re therapeutic
Animals from dogs to rabbits are often used for therapy in hospitals and nursing homes. “I’ve taken my dog to a few hospitals and schools, and it’s amazing how people are reluctant to talk to people but will open up to an animal,” Moore says. There’s something rejuvenating, renewing about coming home to a friendly animal that greets you like a rock star, she says. Moore suggests the strong human-to-animal bond could be related to fond childhood memories. Even if it’s a just a spider, people often feel more comfortable being themselves around animals, says Moore. (Though admittedly, spiders aren’t for everyone.)

#4: They can improve human nutrition
Eat alongside bad company and you may lose your appetite, but eating in the company of an animal may improve your eating habits. “In nursing homes, if there’s a fish tank where people are eating, seeing those fish actually motivates some residents to eat,” says Moore. In some cases animal companionship has helped the nutritional habits of their humans. For example, she says, research has shown that recipients of the Meals on Wheels program who were allowed to eat near their pets improved some of their eating patterns.

#5: They improve your relationships
A good relationship with your animal friends may spill over into better relations with humans. An animal doesn’t care who you are or what outfit you’re wearing, they want to play and be around you, says Moore. This carefree, playful attitude, she says, has made many animal-lovers more prone to live in the moment. According to a 1997 study at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, observing animals in nature can teach valuable characteristics like patience, and help restore mental energy. Taking care of an animal can also teach responsibility, and stimulate feelings of trust, openness, and companionship.

And there are even MORE benefits to having a dog or other pet: Check out 5 ways animals help your health!