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People who struggle with stress benefit from having a pet

According to a new study led by Kingston University London, having a pet could help people who are less resilient better cope with the stresses of everyday life. However, unhealthy attachments to pets – when owners consider their pets to be more important than other people in their lives, for instance – can lead to increased feelings of loneliness. 

By using two surveys of over 700 people from the UK and around the world (one conducted during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic in May 2020 and the other in September 2021), the researchers explored whether having a pet was associated with better mental wellbeing during the pandemic.

The analysis revealed that pets had a largely positive effect on the lives of their owners. Increased exposure to their animals – such as playing with them or taking them out for walks more often – was associated with better mental health. Overall, owners who spent more time with their pets generally reported being happier. However, the scientists also found that unhealthy attachments to pets were frequently linked to poorer mental health.

“It’s commonly believed that pets are good for humans. While our research partly supports this, I wanted to understand what role people’s individual characteristics, such as resilience, play in the relationship between pet ownership and positive or negative mental health,” said study lead author Ece Beren Barklam, a PhD student in human-animal interaction at Kingston.

“Where the owner considers their pet to be more important than the people in their lives, the study found they were lonelier, unhappier, and less resilient. They also scored lower when it came to overall mental wellbeing. This type of attachment may reflect an unhealthy bond, where the owner treats their pet as if it has human motives and traits, which could be a kind of anthropomorphism.”

According to study senior author Fatima Maria Felisberti, a neuroscientist at Kingston and Barklam’s supervisor, these findings could improve our understanding of the crucial role that pets play in people’s everyday lives. “We tend to over-simplify our view of why people have pets. Beren’s research highlights the complexities involved in such relationships.”

The study is published in the journal Anthrozoös.

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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