Although pet keeping is not culturally universal, it exists in most societies. The role that pets play in a person’s life is significant, with many potential health outcomes including improved mental and physical health. Specifically, these outcomes can include reducing stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms, providing emotional support, reducing loneliness, boosting self-esteem, encouraging social interaction, and increasing comforting tactile sensations.
The pet effect
In fact, a recent study conducted in Singapore in 2020 found that pet ownership has several significant associations with physical activity levels and mental health conditions in certain subgroups (Goh et al., 2020). More specifically, these subgroups consisted of pet owners who reported higher physical activity level as compared to non-pet owners, likely due to pet-related activities that owners have to engage in with their pets, especially with dogs. Having more physical activities is not just important for physical heath but also for mental health. For example, physical activities can help to strengthen neurons in the brain and produce “feel good” feelings, as well as bring people out of isolation when they take their pets out and interact with other pet owners.
The study also found that individuals over the age of 35 benefitted more from pet ownership in terms of emotional well-being, energy level and social functioning, suggesting that a meaningful engagement with pets is needed for increased mental health benefits. It may be that more matured individuals are able to better invest, care for and nurture their pets, leading to a closer emotional bond with them and deeper emotional rewards.
Moreover, individuals who were not married also appeared to have benefitted from having pets as companions, as living alone for long periods of time is likely to increase a sense of loneliness, which in turn predisposes a person to depressive symptoms.
Pets and happiness
Owning a pet can provide a sense of purpose, meaning, and responsibility for pet owners and help enrich their lives, thereby reducing a sense of loneliness for them. Another study conducted in the USA in 2016 found that pet owners experienced a higher level of satisfaction in their lives compared with non-pet owners (Bao & Schreer, 2016). High overall life satisfaction, along with more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions, are the three core components of happiness (Diener et al., 2002). Life satisfaction, which is considered a cognitive component of happiness, has been shown to be more resistant to adaptation.
Thus, even though pet owners may eventually “get over” their initial higher level of positive emotions after they have had their pets for some time, the established relationship and emotional bonds with their pets continue to provide them with overall life satisfaction despite the plateauing of positive emotional experiences.
When pets become family
Another interesting finding is that when pets are being viewed and treated as a member of the family, they can play an important role in providing social support that can improve people’s mental and physical health. Having social connection is convincingly one of the most basic human need and the most potent human motive; without it, individuals are likely to experience poorer mental and physical health.
Individuals are likely to experience more social support when they ascribe human attributes to their pets by perceiving them as having socially supportive attributes, thereby leading to the experience of social connection with them and improved mental and physical health.
Research has shown that when people expand on their family network and included more entities, including persons and pets, in their construal of family, they are likely to experience increased well-being. In support of this view, a study conducted in 2019 in the USA found that when owners saw their pets as family members, they also formed meaningful social connections with them, which improved their mental health and well-being (McConnell et al., 2019).
Owning pets can serve to enhance one’s well-being as well as serve as one of the protective factors against negative psychological effects, especially in times of loneliness.
Pets and mental health in the pandemic
In addition, the COVID-19 situation has lasted for more than two years, and this challenging time has brought about a huge sense of isolation and loneliness for many people around the world due to the lockdowns and social distancing measures. However, owning a pet has helped to provide the much-needed companionship and emotional comfort for many.
In the latest study to investigate the association between pet ownership and physical activity and mental health during the COVID-19 times with restricted social activities in Singapore, several benefits were found for pet owners (Tan et al., 2021). Specifically, people who own pets had a higher level of emotional well-being, energy and social functioning than those who do not, leading to enhanced physical and mental health. This can be attributed to the higher engagement with their pets including physical engagement and emotional attachment, which in turn can help to alleviate or negate detrimental psychological effects such as loneliness and rumination leading to anxiety and depression.
It must be noted however, interaction with other human beings are basic psychological needs for human motivation and growth, and it is not to be substituted by having pets alone. Rather, owning pets can serve to enhance one’s well-being as well as serve as one of the protective factors against negative psychological effects, especially in times of loneliness.
Owning a pet is a major commitment
Notwithstanding, it must be emphasised that although pet ownership can bring about numerous benefits in terms of improving our overall well-being, owning a pet is a huge responsibility and a life-long commitment. An animal is completely dependent on its owner for survival and for life-long companionship, and the decision to have a pet should not be based on superficial factors like “because it is a cute toy”.
Moreover, significant investments in terms of time, commitment and money would need to be considered, as a pet needs to be trained, nurtured, and fed nutritious foods. However, just like a commitment to a relationship with another human being, the “returns in investments” are likely to be many times over.
In sum, human interactions with animals have existed since the dawn of time. Although it may seem challenging to explain precisely how pets can make one feel happier, it is important to recognise the role that pets play in almost every aspect of our psychological and cultural lives. The companionship that dedicated pet owners receive from their pets is so invaluable that they would not trade their money for.
Chad Yip is a registered clinical psychologist who provides psychological assessment and treatment for children, adolescents and adults. He is the Head of Psychology at Neurowyzr Pte Ltd, a neuroscience company specialising in brain health. He is involved in clinical work, product development and research. He is committed to serve the ever-changing needs of the individual and society.>
- Bao, K. J., Schreer, G. (2016). Pets and Happiness: Examining the Association between Pet Ownership and Wellbeing. Anthrozoös, 29(2), 283–296. https://doi:10.1080/08927936.2016.1152721
- Diener, E., Lucas, R. E. and Oishi, S. 2002. Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and life satisfaction. In The Handbook of Positive Psychology, 63–73, ed. C. R. Snyder and S. J. Lopez. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Goh, Y. X., Tan, J. S. Q., Syn, N. L., Tan, B. S, W., Jia Y., Foo, Y. H., Fung, W., Hoong, B. Y. D., Pang, J. (2020). Association between pet ownership and physical activity levels, atopic conditions, and mental health in Singapore: a propensity score-matched analysis. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 19898. https://doi:10.1038/s41598-020-76739-2
- McConnell, A. R., Paige L. E., Humphrey, B. T. (2019). We Are Family: Viewing Pets as Family Members Improves Wellbeing. Anthrozoös, 32(4), 459–470. https://doi:10.1080/08927936.2019.1621516
- Tan, J. S. Q., Fung, W., Tan, B. S. W., Low, J. Y., Syn, N. L., Goh, Y. X., & Pang, J. (2021) Association between pet ownership and physical activity and mental health during the COVID-19 “circuit breaker” in Singapore, One Health, 13, 100343 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.onehlt.2021.100343.