Humans are, for the most part, innately social creatures: we desire and seek out interpersonal relationships. It is unsurprising then that multiple links have been observed between social health and overall well-being. Social support is a good measure of social health and is loosely defined as “the presence of others, or the resources provided by them, prior to, during, and following a stressful event”(ref 1). Social support is hypothesized to play a key role in helping moderate and buffer the effects of mental and emotional stress (ref 2). Specifically among the many benefits, a high level of social support in individuals is associated with a lower risk of all-around mortality (ref 3), and lower mortality rates coincident with long-term disorders such as diabetes (ref 4). In general, there is a robust body of empirical evidence demonstrating that high social support has many benefits, direct and indirect, to our mental and physical health.
How do pets contribute to our social lives and ultimately to our sense of social support? There are several ways, perhaps the most obvious being their ability to act as a “social catalyst.” Simply put, pets provide a great means to start a conversation for both the owner and any interested party (ref 5). This can be of great use to individuals who suffer from feelings of isolation or those who are uncomfortable in social situations. In addition to aiding in the formation of new relationships, pets have also been seen to be capable of helping individuals better manage the impact of negative social experiences and events (ref 6). Overall, we can see that pets can serve to strengthen and maintain the sense of social support perceived by individuals.
Along with complementing the social interactions between humans, companionship itself is thought to impart distinct mental and psychological benefits. Technically, companionship and social support are two separate terms. The main way in which they differ is that companionship is defined as not “offer[ing] extrinsic support but provid[ing] intrinsic satisfactions” (ref 7). These intrinsic satisfactions may be factors such as the sense of purpose derived from the relationship or the joy found in shared recreation. It is theorized that these effects may help individuals manage minor life stress on a more day-to-day basis (ref 7). One such study that lends credence to this idea demonstrated the ability of pets to lower stress-induced changes in blood pressure (ref 8). This is again in contrast to social support, which is generally regarded as acting as a buffer for more acutely stressful events. In any event, the psychological benefits of companionship may play an important part in maintaining positive mental health. Animal companionship may be particularly effective in this role because it is an unconditional relationship, and not subject to highly unpredictable changes or interruptions.
The next post will look at the merit of animal-assisted therapies and the significance of animal companionship for the elderly.
- Ganster DC, Victor B. The Impact of social support on mental and physical health. British Journal of Medical Psychology. 1988; 61:17-36
- Cohen S, Wills TA. Stress, Social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin. 1985; 98:310-357
- Reblin M, Uchino BN. Social and Emotional Support and its Implication for Health. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2008; 21(2): 201-205.
- Zhang X, Norris SL, Gregg EW, Beckles G. Social support and mortality among older persons with diabetes. Diabetes Educ. 2007; 33(2): 273-281.
- McNicholas J, Collis GM. Dogs as catalyst for social interactions: Robustness of the effect. British Journal of Psychology. 2000; 91: 61-70.
- McConnell AR, Brown CM, Shoda TM, Stayton LE, Martin CE. Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2011; 101(6): 1239-1252.
- McNicholas J, Gilbey A, Rennie A, Ahmedzai S, Dono JA, Ormerod E. Pet Ownership and human health: a brief review of evidence and issues. BMJ. 2008; 331:1252-1254
- Allen K, Shykoff BE, Izzo JL jr. Pet ownership, but not ace inhibitor therapy, blunts home blood pressure responses to mental stress. Hypertension 2001; 38(4): 815-820.
- Joey Orofino