Dogs are said to be men's best friend, but does pet ownership actually improve quality of life? A research published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that having a stronger connection with your dog might be linked to an increase in anxiety and depression.
Dogs are a valuable companion to a large number of individuals, and individuals in particular enjoy them. But recent research focusing on normal pet ownership has produced mixed and complex conclusions.
Carri Westgarth, a senior lecturer in Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Liverpool, claims that dogs are extremely beneficial to our mental health. “It was clear to me that ownership of dogs is difficult.”
Westgarth and her colleagues used data from 1,693 dog owners recruited from the United Kingdom to construct their sample. Participants completed a questionnaire that included both open-ended and closed questions about their dogs, their personal physical and mental health, psychological health, and demographics. Open-ended questions included reasons for buying their dog, and how they believed having their dog affects their mental health.
People who had stronger bonds with their dogs tended to have beneficial outcomes, including greater emotional support and companionship, but there were also some disadvantages. People who had more interactions with their dogs had lower depression and anxiety levels.
Open-ended questions revealed a number of wonderful benefits of having a dog, including fostering self-acceptance, promoting enjoyment, and reducing emotional suffering. Additionally, open-ended questions revealed that some people may feel that meeting the dog's needs is a burden.
“Getting a dog can have its advantages, including motivation to exercise, fun, and companionship, but it also presents challenges,” Westgarth said. It isn't the answer for people who are dealing with depression or anxiety, in fact it may worsen it in several instances.
“While many people believed that having a dog helped them to manage certain mental health issues, such as fear of negative thoughts or providing motivation, by establishing a routine and purpose, the burden of responsibility that comes with having a dog can be overwhelming and prevent owners from engaging with other people as much as they might have previously.”
Despite its successes, there are still limitations to note. One such limitation is that this study was primarily female, and this might limit generalization.
The main limitation of the research is that the data is cross-sectional at one time, so we don't know whether having a stronger connection with their dog leads to higher scores of depression and anxiety, or whether having higher levels of depression and anxiety drives owners to seek out dog ownership and form a strong bond with them.
My book: The Happy Dog Owner: Finding Health and Happiness With the Help of Your Dog contains additional information on the relationship between dog and owner and mental health.
Aikaterini Merkouri, Taryn M. Graham, Marguerite Elizabeth O'Haire, Rebecca Purewal, and Carri Westgarth coauthored the paper "Dogs and the Good Life: A Cross-Sectional Study of the Owner's Mental Wellbeing."