The Well-Being Benefits of Seeing Pets as Family Members

Viewing pets as family members improves our mental and physical health.

Posted Aug 13, 2019

The majority (77%) of dog and cat owners report that their pet is a family member "just like anyone else" (McConnell et al., 2017). A recently-published paper shows that viewing pets as part of the family has mental and physical health benefits.

There is variability in how people view their families, yet 65% of people report that family is the most important social group in their lives (McConnell et al., 2019). Families can play many meaningful roles for people, but one of the most important functions from a psychological perspective is their ability to provide social support. When facing challenging periods, family members often step up with everything from caring ears that listen to people's problems to providing material support that can sustain people through hard times.

Allen McConnell
Source: Allen McConnell

It makes sense that families can promote health and well-being because of the social support they provide, but why should such benefits extend to people's pets? Although it's easy to include a pet in a family photo, pets do not ask their owners to "tell me about your day" or make no-interest loans to help someone pay their bills until the end of the month.

Why viewing pets as family improves people's health

It's well established that pets, in general, improve people's health and well-being. For example, following a social rejection experience, thinking about one's pet is just as effective at eliminating negative feelings as thinking about one's best friend (McConnell et al., 2011). Further, when people feel lonely, they view them as possessing socially supportive traits such as "considerate" and "sympathetic" (i.e., anthropomorphism), presumably to enhance social connections with them (Epley et al., 2008). Indeed, among people who tend to anthropomorphize animals often, merely looking at photos of dogs and cats can neutralize the negative feelings that come from social rejection experiences (Brown et al., 2016).

Pets provide well-being benefits for people because humans imbue these animals with socially-supportive attributes, that in turn, psychologically translate into experiencing social support from them. Regardless of the actual capacities that animals might possess (Horowitz, 2009), if someone believes their pet is considerate and sympathetic, well-being benefits are experienced because social support is a psychological process.

The science underlying the benefits of viewing pets as family

When people see pets as family members, their companion animals are granted membership in people's most important social group, giving them an anthropomorphism boost that, in turn, equips them with more socially-supportive capacity. A recent paper by McConnell, Lloyd, and Humphrey (2019) provided support for this account. 

In one of their work, these authors observed that people who viewed their pets more strongly as family members also reported greater well-being benefits such as greater self-esteem, less depression, and fewer stress-related illnesses. Of course, such correlational findings do not establish that seeing pets as family members cause these benefits, so they conducted a follow-up study using experimental methods.

Specifically, they randomly assigned pet owners to either a condition where they either wrote an essay about how their pet "really was a family member" or "really was an animal" to shift their perceptions of their pets. In the former condition, people wrote essays such as recalling a time when their dog refused to leave a family alone who just lost a sibling to cancer, whereas people in the latter condition recalled episodes such as a time when their family dog killed a bird in the backyard and brought it to the owners like a trophy. In other words, everyone can think about times when their pet acts like "a family member" or "an animal" very easily, and these writing exercises were designed to produce systematic, albeit temporary, shifts in how they viewed their companion animals.

Participants in the pet-is-family condition (compared to pet-is-animal condition) showed better well-being at the end of the study. Moreover, these participants revealed greater pet anthropomorphism, and this enhanced tendency to ascribe stronger socially-supportive traits to their pet explained the well-being benefits experienced. In other words, viewing one's pet as a family member improves well-being because seeing one's pet as family increases the degree to which we ascribe socially-supported traits to these animals.

A story about family and humanity

This finding shows that viewing pets as family not only improve well-being, but it happens because we apply more socially-supportive qualities to these companion animals. This work highlights the well-being benefits of pet anthropomorphism (e.g., Brown et al., 2016; McConnell et al., 2017), and it complements other work showing that as people include a greater diversity of entities in their construal of family (e.g., neighbors, friends, co-workers, pets), they enjoy greater mental and physical health (Buchanan & McConnell, 2017). Indeed, people report that they receive as much social support from their pets as they do from their parents or siblings (McConnell et al., 2011).

In addition to implications about our connections to pets, this work also has important implications for how people construct meaningful relationships with people too. Indeed, most of the power of social connectedness is subjective and resides in the mind of those who need support (Epley et al., 2007). Thus, when we bestow "family" on our friends, on godparents, or on step-relatives, its effects are powerful and those bonds become deeper. And in the case of pets, our ability to ascribe "family" to entities that not only are not blood-relatives but not even human beings, reflects the flexibility of the human mind and the importance of social connectedness with others in our everyday lives.

References

Brown, C. M., Hengy, S. M. & McConnell, A. R. (2016). Thinking about cats and dogs provides relief from social rejection. Anthrozoös, 29, 47-58.

Buchanan, T. M., & McConnell, A. R. (2017). Family as a source of support under stress: Benefits of greater breadth of family inclusion. Self and Identity, 16, 97-122.

Epley, N., Akalis, S., Waytz, A., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2008). Creating social connection through inferential reproduction: Loneliness and perceived agency in gadgets, gods, and greyhounds. Psychological Science, 19, 114–120.

Epley, N., Waytz, A., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2007). On seeing human: A three-factor theory of anthropomorphism. Psychological Review, 114, 864–886.

Horowitz, A. (2009). Inside of a dog: What dogs see, smell, and know. New York, NY: Scribner.

McConnell, A. R., Brown, C. M., Shoda, T. M., Stayton, L. E., & Martin, C. E. (2011). Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 1239-1252.

McConnell, A. R., Lloyd, E. P., & Humphrey, B. T. (2019). We are family: Viewing pets as family members improves well-being. Anthrozoös, 32, 459-470.

McConnell, A. R., Lloyd, E. P., & Buchanan, T. M. (2017). Animals as friends: Social psychological implications of human-pet relationships. In M. Hojjat & A. Moyer (Eds.), Psychology of friendship (pp. 157-174). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

McConnell, A. R., Buchanan, T. M., Lloyd, E. P., & Skulborstad, H. M. (2019). Families as ingroups that provide social resources: Implications for well-being. Self and Identity, 18, 306-330.  

More Posts