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Want to feel better? Science says to care for your dog

Admit it, caring for your pet can make you happy too. Science is working on why.

dog close-up
Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels
  • A study shows that caring for your pets can improve your well-being.
  • The researchers found the act of caring provided more improvements than mere companionship.
  • These results aren't limited to pets. Plenty of studies show caring for others can improve your well-being.

Many pet owners will tell you that tending to their pets is a chore, but one that often brings joy. Psychology noticed this a long time ago, and the "Pet Effect," the tendency of people with pets to be healthier, happier, and live longer, is an increasingly well-documented phenomenon. While these studies suggest that many of the benefits come from pets seeming to attend to our need for companionship, a new study finds that providing for your pet's needs can grant similar benefits.

Admit it, you treat your dog like it's a person and act accordingly. It's kind of okay though, tons of people do.

Researchers with the Interdisciplinary Center of the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology asked 104 dog owners to keep a journal for 21 days. The test subjects rated how much they agreed with statements about their interactions with their pet such as "When I interacted with my dog, I tried to show it that I really care for it" or "When I interacted with my dog, I tried to let it feel free to be its true self." They also responded to questions of how they were feeling, and if they supposed their dogs cared about them.

As predicted, owners who gave their dogs more support reported higher levels of well-being, felt closer to their pets, and noted less psychological distress. The effect was more substantial than the benefits gained from receiving support from pets, suggesting that giving support satisfies a need by itself.

The dogs involved in the study could not be reached for comment but are assumed to have enjoyed the attention.

Self-Determination Theory

The authors interpreted these findings in the light of Self-Determination Theory, or SDT. A theory of human motivation that focuses on innate drives and needs, it centers around the idea that humans function well when our internal motivations are satisfied and less so when they are not. The key motivations are:

  • Autonomy, defined as a need to be a causal agent.
  • Competence, defined as the need to experience mastery.
  • Relatedness, defined as the need to interact and connect with others as well as the need to experience caring.

One possible explanation of the pet effect observed here is that owners are anthropomorphizing their dogs and allowing their owners to perceive tending to a dog's needs as similar to tending to another person's needs. In particular, this is satisfying the need for Relatedness. Whether dogs actually have the same need to connect with others or to be supported so it can "feel free to be its true self" as humans do remains unknown.

In any case, it does appear that you can satisfy your need to care for something by trying to make your pet happy. Exactly how far this effect can be pushed and if it still works if people aren't anthropomorphizing their pets are areas for future study.

But I don’t own pets, so how does this apply to me?

The ideas behind SDT can be applied in many situations, not only ones involving pets. A variety of other studies have shown that providing care for others can improve your well-being, but have focused on what happens when humans tend to other humans.

Science has confirmed what many pet owners always knew, taking care of your fur-covered friend is often more of a joy than a chore. This study points to new ways to improve your well-being by interacting with both humans and animals to make everybody feel a little better.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to play with a cat.

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Credit: Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
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