The Psychological Benefits of Having a Pet


Cassie R. Waggoner




It has been shown that there are many positive effects of owning a pet including medical benefits, monetary benefits, and psychological benefits. Every person relates to their pet in different ways, meaning they each have different physiological, medical, and monetary gains/losses in pet ownership. The researcher hypothesized that pet owners would have reduced stress levels, mammal owners, in particular, would have the greatest reduction of perceived stress and that overall women would have higher perceived stress levels. Statistical tests showed a statistical significant difference in pet owners versus non-pet owners; however, pet owners had a higher amount of stress. The second hypothesis regarding mammal owners was not testable due to a small sample size. Significance was also found when it came to females having higher perceived stress levels. Further details are provided for each hypothesis.



The topic of stress in America is still something that has many gray areas. There are many situations that cause stress; there is chronic stress, daily stress, moderate levels of stress, and high levels of stress, just to name a few classifications. Chronic stress is usually defined as stress occurring for more than 6 months (Cropley & Steptoe, 2005). There are even psychological and health issues that can be caused from stress (Cropley & Steptoe, 2005). According to a survey done in 2009 by the American Psychological Association, 75% of adults have experienced moderate to high levels of stress (Brown, 2012). The causes of stress are very broad and can be different for every person. For some people, a bad grade on a test can cause high stress levels, or for some that bad grade, would not be given a second thought. It has also been shown that there are gender differences in the ways men and women interpret stress. Women tend to report more stressful life experiences and they report more physical illness related to their stressful lifestyle than men do (Cropley & Steptoe, 2005). However, in contrast to that, other studies have found no gender differences in stress. At this time, it is not clear of the gender differences that are related to stress.

Many psychologists have emphasized the fact that having daily stressors in a person’s life can be good for their well-being (Hay & Diehl, 2010). However, it is important how the person reacts to this stress. The reaction is what determines if the stress is going to have a positive outcome or a negative outcome on the person. The reaction to the stress is due to the personal characteristics that they bring to the situation (Hay & Diehl, 2010).  So, in some cases, stress can be good! It has also been shown that social support is a huge indicator of how people cope with stressful situations (Cohen & Wills, 1985).

 Social Support is Crucial in Dealing With Stress

Cohen and Wills (1985) explain the buffering hypothesis model. The buffering hypothesis says that support is crucial for people undergoing stressful events. The support “buffers” people from the negative side effects of stress. This hypothesis also states that there are four different types of interpersonal support. The four types of support are: emotional support, informational support, social companionship, and instrumental support (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Emotional support is when people know they are valued for their own worth and are accepted for who they are, despite any personal faults (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Informational support is when others help someone cope with and understand problematic events (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Social companionship is spending time with others in leisure and/or recreational activities (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Instrumental support is saying that people are financially stable and have material resources (Cohen & Wills, 1985). It is also noted that usually all of these go hand in hand (Cohen & Wills, 1985). For example, it is likely that people who have more social companionship also have more access to instrumental assistance. On the other hand, if a person is lacking in instrumental support, then they are probably also lacking in social companionship as well as the other areas of support. When a person does not have these mechanisms of support, there are many different side effects including negative affect, elevation of physiological responses, and behavioral adaptations (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Usually, these side effects do not happen after a single stressful event without support; however, when a person undergoes many stressful events, without any type of support, these side effects can occur. The results of stress over a long period of time can cause feelings of helplessness, loss of self-esteem, depression, and other illnesses (Cohen & Wills, 1985).

Stress can cause many different symptoms in humans, and the type of stress being experienced can lead to different symptoms/illness. It was shown that emotional distress is associated with a greater risk of infection and can cause previously infected humans to develop serious illness (Cohen, Kamarck, & Mermelstein, 1983). Stress reduces the function of the immune system of humans, making them more susceptible to infections/illness (Cohen, Kamarck, & Mermelstein, 1983). It has also been shown that other people can provide resources that can moderate the adverse effects of stress. This study shows that social support appeared to buffer the effects of recent stress; however chronic stress is not affected (Cropley & Steptoe, 2005).

Perceived Stress Scale (PSS)

There are many different ways to measure stress, but, for the current research, the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) was used (Cohen, Kamarck, & Mermelstein, 1983). This scale is designed to measure the degree to which situations in one’s life are appraised as stressful. This test has shown adequate reliability (alpha=0.78) and validity (Cohen et al., 1983). The PSS is usually used in examining the role of non-specific appraised stress in the etiology of disease and behavioral disorders that are related to stress levels (Cohen et al., 1983). This test is also a good predictor of health-related outcomes and health problems that are correlated with stress (Cohen et al., 1983). This scale has also been unaffected by the sex of the participant, meaning that it is not gender biased in any way. For this research, the 10-item PSS scale was used, which is very easy to understand. The participants are asked to rate, on a scale of 1 (being never) through 5 (very often), the amount of times situations have happened within the past month (Cohen et al., 1983). Some scores are reversed, and the total is summed (the higher the participant’s score, the higher the perceived stress level).

It has been mentioned that social support is highly critical to a person’s overall well-being. It is important for people to be able to turn to a companion when they are in need of support during their stressful situations. Without this support, many people end up with different illnesses, higher blood pressures and heart rates, as well as, low self-esteem and other health issues (Cohen et al., 1983).

Advantages to Having “Man’s Best Friend”

Dogs have long been known as “man’s best friend”. There are over 77 million dogs and 93 million cats in the United States alone (McConnell, Brown, Shoda, Stayton, & Martin, 2011). Also, 62% of U.S. households own a pet and there is over $45 billion annually spent on pet supplies (McConnell et al., 2011). It has been shown in previous research that owing a pet can be beneficial to their owners in numerous ways. Research has shown that pet owners are less likely to die within 1 year of having a heart attack than non-pet owners (McConnell et al., 2011). Elderly pet owners have fewer visits to physicians and HIV positive men reported less depression if they owned a pet (McConnell et al., 2011).  As mentioned earlier, social support is critical for psychological and physical well-being of humans (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Pets can be the social support that humans need. The study done by McConnell et al. (2011) tested three different hypotheses. The first study showed that pet owners fared better on several well-being aspects, such as, greater self-esteem and more physically fit. They also were less fearful and more conscientiousness about situations (McConnell et al., 2011). The second study dealt with the behavior of pets. This study found that owners were more satisfied psychologically when their pets fulfilled their social needs better, meaning the pets were not misbehaving (McConnell et al., 2011). The final study showed that pets can offset the negativity resulting from a stressful rejection (McConnell et al., 2011). All in all, it was shown that pets can serve as important sources of social support. Social support from pets can offer many positive physical effects including increased cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune functioning (McConnell et al., 2011). There is also a belief that pets are considered “close others”. This relationship between human and animal is what provides the amount of social support. It has been shown that as many as 50% of pet owners consider their pets as “part of the family” (McConnell et al., 2011). Another interesting find in this particular study was that pet owners who are more fearful benefit more from pets because their pets can address social shortcomings and challenges that they face when interacting with other people (McConnell et al., 2011). Since the animal provides unconditional love, they feel as if they are not being “judged” or persecuted due to their personality.  A huge part of human behavior is to want to feel included. When humans feel excluded from other humans, they can turn to their pets for support (Antonacopoulos & Pychyl, 2006). This increased amount of support can lead to a reduction of stress.  

Pet Dogs Versus Human Friends in the Reduction of Stress

The study done by Allen, Blascovich, Tomaka, and Kelsey (1991) further proved that some people feel more comfortable around their pets than other humans. In this study, subjects were given a test consisting of mental arithmetic, both inside a laboratory setting and in the field. This study was conducted exclusively with female dog owners. In the laboratory setting, the females were asked to participate in a mental arithmetic questionnaire. During the questionnaire, the participant’s autonomic physiological responses were monitored (blood pressure, heart rate, and skin conductance). Two weeks later, the researcher came to the same individuals homes’ and the experimenter gave them another mental arithmetic questionnaire and measured the same autonomic physiological responses under one of three conditions: presence of their pet dog, presence of a close human friend, or neither pet nor friend. This study showed that subjects in the pet condition had less physiological reactivity than subjects in the other conditions (Allen et al., 1991). They interpreted this finding by saying that the presence of a pet during a stressful event provided the kind of nonevaluative social support that is crucial to buffering negative physiological responses to acute stress (Allen et al., 1991). Essentially, this study showed that people who were fearful of being evaluated by another individual performed better when in the presence of their pet, because they had no fear of being evaluated (Allen et al., 1991).

Physiological and Monetary Benefits to Owning a Pet

There have been numerous other studies that have shown the physical benefits to being a pet owner. One study showed the one-year survival rates of patients after discharge from a coronary care unit. The results of this study showed that 28% of the non-pet owners died within one year of being discharged compared to only 6% of pets owners (Friedmann, Katcher, Lynch, & Thomas, 1980). This research also went on to discuss how important it is for humans to have social affiliation and companionship in their lives and how the lack of either of these can cause health issues. It is also said that human love is very hard to earn and usually involves much difficulty and sacrifice, or it may be completely unavailable. However, with pets the love and attention is already given, without any sacrifice or difficulty (Friedmann et al., 1980).

Another relevant study found a correlation between elderly pet owners and the use of physician services. It was found that pet owners reported fewer doctor contacts over a 1-year period than non-pet owners (Siegel, 1990). It seemed as though pets help their owners cope with stress because the majority of the physician visits were due to stress related illnesses. It was also shown that dog owners spent more time with their pets, causing an attachment with their pet and a mutual companionship (Siegel, 1990). This mutual companionship could be a contributing factor to the reduction of stress. Finally, a 10-month prospective study examined health differences in humans who had newly acquired a pet. It was shown that people who had recently become a pet owner had a reduction in minor health problems during the first month of having the pet which was sustained by pet owners through 10 months (Serpell, 1991). This could also be because of the increased amount of exercise, as well as, the increase in social support the animal provides (Serpell, 1991).

Pets can be a big contributor to overall better health, which means people will be going to the doctor less, and therefore saving themselves from expensive doctor bills. A survey done in Australia estimated that $3.86 billion could be saved nationally (Headey & Grabka, 2003). This is due to the positive health benefits of owning a pet (Headey & Grabka, 2003).   

Pets in the Family

Pets are also beginning to play a key role in the family structure of many households around the country. The pets’ role is dictated by the social structure of the household (Albert & Bulcroft, 1988). There are varying attachment levels to each pet depending on what the human is looking for. The highest attachment levels are amongst never-married, divorced, widowed, remarried people, childless couples, newlyweds, and empty-nesters (Albert & Bulcroft, 1988). These people are also more likely to anthropomorphize their pets, meaning, they are more likely to give their pets human like qualities. It has also been shown that pet anthropomorphism is highest in pet dog owners. Dog owners also have the highest attachment levels indicating that anthropomorphism and attachment are positively correlated (Albert & Bulcroft, 1988).

Pets are definitely a big part of human culture, and yet many people do not understand how or why we feel so deeply for our pets. One article says that it could be because “people vibes” are very different than the vibes we get from animals (Porter, 2010). People go through turmoil, they have hopes and fears, and they can hold grudges, all of these things can result in unlikeable behaviors. It is suggested that we love our pets because they love us, they make us laugh, they make us feel, and we miss them when we are not with them (Porter, 2010). It is also suggested that pets are used as a way to communicate with other people. The research says that pets can bridge communication gaps and start new social interactions with others, causing potential health benefits for the owners (Wood, Giles-Corti, & Bulsara, 2005).

Dogs are definitely the most common pets, which are followed by cats, horses, and birds (Walsh, 2009). According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the U.S. animal ownership and population as of 1991 is as follows: dogs-38.2%, cats-32.3%, caged birds-7.7%, small animals-5.0%, reptiles-3.0%, freshwater fish-10%, and marine fish-0.6% (Beck & Meyers, 1996). These percentages have increased since 1991; however, they are still approximately proportionate. The type of pet is dependent on the family needs which are usually dependent on the social structure of the family. This could also be dependent of the dominant gender of the family or the gender of the owner (Beck & Meyers, 1996).

Gender Differences in Pet Interactions 

A study done by Prato-Previde, Fallani, and Valescchi (2006) examined the differences between men and women pet-owners interactions’ with their pet dogs. These interactions form attachments, and those attachments are what provide social support for humans. It was found that women and men differed in the use of verbal communication, which could be expected (Prato-Previde et al., 2006). Women talked more than men in general to their pets, as well as, starting conversation with their pets sooner. Also, the type of communication varied with women talking more in an infant-directed speech (Prato-Previde et al., 2006). There were no gender differences when it came to playing with their pets. It was also said that modern dog owners are strongly attached to their pets, and that attachment levels did not differ by gender (Prato-Previde et al., 2006).

Attachment levels of humans to their pets are thought to be a big indicator of the amount of social support that humans receive from their pets. According to the research, people who have weaker attachments to their pets are more unsatisfied with their pet’s behavior and therefore have higher stress levels, compared to people who have stronger attachment levels (Serpell, 1996).

Social Support, Anthropomorphism and Stress among Dog owners

Attachment levels in pet owners are linked to anthropomorphism, which is also linked to a reduction of stress levels (Antonacopoulos & Pychyl, 2006). Studies have shown that owning a pet is linked to stress reduction; however, this study looks at if the amount of anthropomorphism that an owner partakes in affects the amount of stress reduction. This research uses the Perceived Stress Scale to measure the amount of stress the owner is currently going through. Many researchers believe that pet owners have a reduced amount of stress because of the Social Support Theory (Antonacopoulos & Pychyl, 2006). This theory states that high levels of social support act as a buffer against stress and consequently protect individuals from harm to their well-being. It is now believed that pets can act as the social support that humans need (Antonacopoulos & Pychyl, 2006). Pets are good to have for social support because pets are not affected by their owner’s social status, the pets do not make excessive demands, and they are predictable in their responses (Antonacopoulos & Pychyl, 2006). The results of this study showed that higher amounts of anthropomorphism, led to a higher amounts of social support, which then caused lower stress levels in the participants (Antonacopoulos & Pychyl, 2006). It was also shown that women and unmarried people participated in anthropomorphism more than men and married people. This would lead people to believe that married people and men either have other mechanisms of social support or they have higher stress levels (Antonacopoulos & Pychyl, 2006).

Clearly, the presence of pets is very important in many peoples’ lives. There are huge economical investments that owners must go through when taking care of a pet. It has been estimated that Americans spend over $5 billion annually feeding dogs and cats alone, while only $3 billion on baby food (Albert & Bulcroft, 1988). Also, veterinary bills in the United States alone exceed $3.5 billion (Albert & Bulcroft, 1988). There is an estimate that an 80 pound dog will cost roughly $8,353, a 10 pound dog $3,525, and a cat $3,957 throughout the pets lifetime (Albert & Bulcroft, 1988). These numbers include licensing, grooming, veterinary costs, and boarding fees (Albert & Bulcroft, 1988). Humans must acquire some type of companionship and gain in pet ownership with these large investments in a hard economical time. 


This study hypothesized that owning a pet would lower the amount of stress on the owner. In order to explore which type of pet would provide more social support; type of pet was not limited to cats and dogs. It is also hypothesized that women will have an overall higher stress level.



The participants in this study were found at a private Midwestern University and the participation was completely voluntary. The ages of the people surveyed were not documented; however, most of them ranged from 18-24 years of age, due to where the study took place. In total, the sample size for this experiment was 100 participants. The study consisted of both males and females, with a breakdown of 44 (44%) males and 56 (56%) females. The participants were chosen at random, mainly in different classrooms around campus. However, there were a few surveys given out outside of classrooms, in various locations on campus. “Data were collected in accordance with the ethical standards of the American Psychological Association (American Psychological Association, 2010).”


The survey used in this study was the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). This survey has been primarily used in an article written by Cohen, Kamarck, and Mermelstein (1983) named “A Global Measure of Perceived Stress” which was published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. This survey is used to assess the amount of stress in a person’s life (Cohen et al., 1983). The survey focuses on the last month of the subjects lives and asks questions such as “In the last month, how often have you felt things were going your way?” and “In the last month, how often have you been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly?”. The subject is then asked to rate each answer from 1 equaling “Never” to 5 equaling “Very Often”. There were also two additional questions that pertained only to pet owners. These two questions asked how often the owner turned to their pet for comfort and if the owner was ever worried about their pet.  Each of these questions also had a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (very often). The final question was open-ended and also only pertained to pet owners, asking them how their pet made them feel. The demographic information consisted of gender, if the participant is a pet owner, and what type of pet the pet owner had (mammal, bird, fish, reptile, and amphibian), the participant could mark more than one if needed. The reliability of the Perceived Stress Scale has been rated at alpha = 0.78 and the validity correlates in a predicted way with other measure of stress (Cohen et al., 1983). These other measures of stress can be the Job Responsibilities Scale or the Life Event Scales (Cohen et al., 1983).


For this study, the participants completed a one page double sided survey. The survey was handed out in various classrooms to individuals on a private Midwestern university’s campus. The participants were briefly informed of the reason the survey was being completed and then given an informed consent form. The informed consent let the participants know that they could withdraw from the survey at any time, the survey was completely anonymous, and it gave contact information if they should have any questions or concerns. The completion of the survey only took around 10 minutes. After the survey was completed, the researcher debriefed the participants and answered any questions pertaining to the survey and the research being done.  After the surveys were completed they were then entered into SPSS and analyzed using an independent samples t-test. The researcher was testing to see if there was a correlation between owning a pet and having lower stress levels, to see if there was any specific pet that would maximize stress reduction, as well as, seeing if any gender differences emerged in the data. Also, the open ended question was analyzed through an excel spreadsheet.


The hypothesis stating that pet owners will have a reduced amount of stress was tested by using an independent samples t-test. In order to test this, the grouping variable (independent variable) was pet-owners and non-pet owners; the test variable (dependent variable) was the Perceived Test Scale total. The results were as follows, the independent samples t-test comparing pet owners / non-pet owners and perceived stress scores indicated that pet owner stress scores (M=33.125, SD=7.459) were significantly higher than non-pet owner scores (M=28.583, SD=7.295), t(98) = 2.946, p= 0.002. This is stating that overall, pet owners stress scores were significantly higher than non-pet owners stress scores, disproving the original hypothesis. However, it was still a significant finding, just in the opposite direction.

The hypothesis stating that mammal pet owners would have a greater reduction of stress was not able to be tested due to the small sample size. There were a very large number of mammal owners; however, the other categories (reptile, amphibian, bird, and fish) only had1-5 participants.

The hypothesis stating that women will have an overall higher amount of perceived stress was also tested using an independent samples t-test. The grouping variable (independent variable) was gender (1=male and 2=female) and the test variable (dependent variable) was the Perceived Test Scale total. The results were as follows, the independent samples t-test analysis comparing perceived stress scores and gender indicated that female scores (M=34.321, SD=7.767) were significantly higher than male scores (M=27.886, SD=5.915), t(98)=4.553, p < 0.001. This is showing a significant difference in the male and female stress scores and that females have a higher overall perceived stress score.

Other Findings

During the survey, pet owners were asked an open-ended question asking them to write a few words on how their pet makes them feel. These words were put into an excel spread sheet and the highest and lowest percentages were recorded. Out of 75 responses, the most common responses were happy (29.30%), loved (21.30%), and comforted (17.33%). The least common responses were responsible (2.67%), awesome (1.33%), and special (1.33%). This further proves the importance of pets in pet-owners lives. It shows the way people perceive their pets and how much they rely on them for important emotional components of everyday living. It also shows that people are able to receive social companionship from their pets; social companionship is when people spend leisure time with others (Cohen & Wills, 1985). In this case, people are able to receive social companionship from their pets because they are feeling loved, happy, and comforted by their pet, all of which are emotions humans feel when they are around other humans during leisure activities.


The hypothesis that stated pet owners would have a lower amount of perceived stress than non-pet owners was not supported in the data; however, in the data, the reverse was found. It was found that pet owners had a higher amount of perceived stress than non-pet owners. The second hypothesis stating that mammal pet owners would have the greatest reduction of perceived stress was unable to be tested. The third hypothesis stating that women would have an overall higher amount of perceived stress was supported by the data. Finally, the data also described the way in which people felt about their pets. It was shown that many people feel comforted, loved, and happy due to their pet’s presence.


            If this research was continued in the future, alterations should be made to make the research more generalizable. First of all, the number of participants should be increased. A greater number of participants will allow the study to be more accurate in its findings. Also, the greater number of participants will allow for a greater number of participants to have different types of pets (mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, and amphibians), with this increased amount of participants, the researcher can study to see if any differences emerge in stress levels due to the type of pet. Another thing that could be studied would be to ask what specific type of pet a person has. For example, in the demographic section, there could also be a question(s) asking if the person is a dog owner, cat owner, etc. Finally, this study would most likely be more accurate if it was done off of a college campus or only involved commuter students. Many people live on campus but they still consider their primary address to be their actual home address. Since the survey asked if people had a pet at their primary residence many participants put down that they do have a pet even though they are living on campus. This means that many participants put down that they had a pet even though they were not surrounded by the pet on a regular basis, causing the results to possibly be skewed because they are not getting the benefits of being around a pet.


            In the future, this research can help to eliminate physical and mental symptoms of stress because it can help to understand the importance of pets in people’s lives.  It can help to reduce stress levels overall and help people to live a healthier life. Future research could find specific factors as to why the people may feel more stressed when they have a pet. The research could look into specific factors that could cause stress; stress could be due to the pet’s behavior or because the person is anthropomorphizing their pet. Another thing that could be further researched would be if having a certain type of pet could have a more dramatic increase or decrease in the stress levels of the pet owner.

All in all, stress is an epidemic happening in our society and it is something that needs be better understood. If pets can help in this epidemic than it would be very beneficial to fully understand the benefits pets can provide to their owners.




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