Pets, Attachment, and Well-Being across the Life Cycle

By Sable, Pat | Social Work, May 1995 | Go to article overview
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Pets, Attachment, and Well-Being across the Life Cycle


Sable, Pat, Social Work


There were 117 million dogs and cats in the United States in 1991 (Mason, 1991). Over half of all families own at least one pet, and many perceive the pets as members of their family (Albert & Bulcroft, 1988; Cain, 1885; Cowles, 1985; Cusak, 1988). Research is beginning to support what every pet owner knows: Having a family pet enhances and enriches quality of life. Although Keddie (1977) wrote that it is difficult to assess this benefit in scientific terms, there is now evidence that animal companionship reduces loneliness and contributes to a general sense of well-being throughout life (Cusak, 1988; Muschel, 1984). Pets have proved effective in reducing blood pressure (Katcher, 1982) and promoting survival in a study of coronary artery illness. In a follow-up study of 93 patients who returned home after heart attacks, only 6 percent of those with pets died, compared with 44 percent without a pet at home (Friedman, Katcher, & Meislich, 1980). These results occurred independent of the existence of other social relationships, leading the researchers to conclude that the presence of pets influenced people in ways that were different from and in addition to human relationships.

Similarly, in a large telephone interview study of Medicare enrollees, Siegel (1990) found that elderly pet owners reported less psychological distress and fewer visits to physicians over a one-year period than respondents who did not own pets. She also noted that 58 percent of the sample did not live alone; thus, pets were not necessarily their only relationships. And in another study of individuals 65 years or older, pet ownership was inversely related to depression (Garrity, Stallones, Marx, & Johnson, 1989).

Pet therapy has proved successful with children (Levinson, 1965), medical patients suffering depression (McCulloch, 1981), institutionalized mentally ill patients (Corson & Corson, 1980; Siegel, 1962), and elderly people living alone or in nursing homes (Brickel, 1984; Bustad & Hines, 1982; Cusak, 1988; Mugford & McComisky, 1975). A pet therapy program for cancer patients and those close to them concluded that pets can help individuals in ways people may not be able to. Though based on a relatively small sample, a follow-up survey revealed that 12 of 15 patients felt that animals lessened their fears, despair, loneliness, and isolation, thereby increasing their adaptation to a most difficult situation. The researcher attributed the positive effects of contact with the animals to their quiet, accepting, and nurturing manner. They neither intruded on nor avoided dying patients (Muschel, 1984).

Other reasons given for the influence of pets on people include the friendship and unconditional love and affection they both give and receive and their ready availability. The presence of pets increases feelings of happiness, security, and self-worth and reduces feelings of loneliness and isolation on a daily basis and during separations or transitions such as spousal bereavement (Gerwolls, 1990; McCulloch, 1981; Rynearson, 1978; Sable, 1991; Stewart, 1983). Lorenz (1952) equated a need for the companionship of his dog to a bond with nature, and Heiman (1965) saw pets as helping to maintain psychological equilibrium.

Despite findings suggesting that companion animals contribute to physical, emotional, and social well-being, and although there are now social workers and social work students working in veterinary hospitals (see Cohen, 1985), the social work literature has given little attention to the psychological role of pets. In particular, there is a lack of research or theoretical explanation of the dynamics of the human-animal bond (Albert & Bulcroft, 1988; Keddie, 1977; Melson, 1989; Rynearson, 1978; Siegel, 1990). Moreover, the loss of a pet may precipitate not only grief and mourning, but also intensified anxiety, depression, and anger, which are the reason for much of clinical practice (Cowles, 1985; Keddie, 1977; Rynearson, 1978).

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