Depression and Bipolar info explaining the latest research in everyday English


Psychological Effects of Dog Ownership

a dog, yesterdayDo dogs help us cope with depression, or do they cause us additional stress?

Do they provide us with comfort support and unconditional love, or is their love and presence placing yet another burden on our already overwhelmed shoulders?

The answer, it seems, depends on your gender, age and marital status.

North America reportedly has 75 million dogs and 39% of North American homes have at least one dog, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

Dr Krista Marie Clark Cline from the University of Missouri–Columbia saw that the existing literature on pet ownership and depression didn’t break down what type of pet caused what result. Keen to know if dog ownership was the ‘godsend’ some dog owners had reported, Krista created a telephone survey lasting some 45-60 minutes that aimed to delve deeper into the research question.

Two hundred and one responses later, she ran several regression analyses (‘stats’ is not my strong point; see the original source article for more detailed descriptions) and came to some interesting conclusions.

But before I get to them, let’s consider a couple of theories about dog ownership and how dogs might interact with depression.

One theory, Role Strain Theory, holds that the individual with multiple roles – marital partner, employee, parent, friend, sibling, etc., – will possibly find adding another role, that of dog owner, to be one burden too many, leading to feelings of lower self-efficacy due to not being able to meet adequately the self-set expectations of each role.

Role Enhancement Theory, conversely, holds that the individual with, for example, too few roles will find the addition of a dog-owner role to be an affirming one, providing them with greater opportunities for feelings of emotional support, exercise (we all know that exercise is good for our mental health) and increased social interaction. Similarly, those individuals with too many roles may find the addition of dog owner a useful emotional buffer and a friend where one can go to for unconditional love and affection (because we all treat our dogs like they’re human, don’t we?).

So, to recap: having a dog may help us if we are living alone and are older in our years (because we have less role demands, are more likely to be single than when we were younger, and have less opportunities for social interaction); equally, having a dog may be a hindrance because they add one more burden to our lives and yet another expectation that we must meet, which can be overwhelming when we already have the role expectations of marriage, parenting, friendship, employment and familial duties.


So what’s the result of the study?


Dr Clark Cline found sex and marital status differences in the relationship between dog ownership and well-being, with women and single adults more likely to benefit from dog ownership.

But, as she points out herself, there are some serious flaws with the study. 

Although dog ownership leads to higher well-being for single individuals and women, the reverse may also hold. People with more depression may seek out dogs as sources of companionship. The direction of causality is a question that can only be answered by carrying out longitudinal studies.

Meaning that we might go out and buy that puppy in the window, the one with the waggily tail, precisely because we are feeling great, only to find that our mood slips; or that we buy the puppy because we were feeling sad, only to find that our mood increases.

Equally, there is no distinction in the study between dogs who are pets and dogs who have some utility: guard dogs, ‘seeing eye’ dogs, and such like. It would be useful for future studies to make some sort of comparison between the utility of the dog and its companionship, including if the guard dog during the day becomes the family pet at night when everyone comes home from work, for example, and what impact that might have on our scant knowledge of the benefits or otherwise of dog ownership when looking at depression.

Although pets have a positive influence on health and well-being (Garrity & Stallones, 1998), no consistent relationship between dog ownership and well-being has been documented



American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA) (2008). 2007-2008 National
Pet Owners Survey.

Clark Cline, K.M. (2010). Psychological Effects of Dog Ownership: Role Strain, Role Enhancement, and Depression. Journal of Social Psychology, Mar/Apr2010, Vol. 150 Issue 2, p117-131

Garrity, T. F. & Stallones, L. (1998). Effects of pet contact on human well-being: Review
of recent research. In C. Wilson and D. C. Turner (Eds.), Companion animals in human
. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Mutrie, N. (2002). Healthy body, healthy mind? Psychologist, 15, 412–413.

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