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A new study on dog owners in Germany indicates that those who have closer bonds with their pets show higher signs of mental illness and misery, but it suggests that this association may be largely explained by insecure connections to other people.
The study was published by BMC Psychiatry.
Both in the general population and in patients with physical and mental problems, pet ownership has long been associated with improved mental health and reduced levels of detrimental conditions like loneliness and depression. However, some studies have found no, or even adverse, impacts of pet ownership on physical and mental health, contradicting these findings.
Johanna Lass-Hennemann, the study’s lead author, and her colleagues used an online survey of 610 German dog owners to test the idea that a person’s emotional attachment to their dog is correlated with their mental health burden and insecurity over their attachment to other people. Additionally, they sought to “disentangle the link between emotional attachment to pets and human attachment and their respective associations with mental health burden.”
On dog owners’ websites and social media, the researchers posted links to their survey in an effort to attract respondents. This method of recruiting study participants included 93% of females between the ages of 18 and 73. In addition to being asked for demographic information and information about their dogs, they were also asked to complete questionnaires on the symptoms of mental illness and distress, or the mental health burden, as well as assessments of their attachment to animals.
More signs of mental problems and distress were indicated by respondents who had a stronger bond with their dogs. More emotional connection to one’s dog was also linked to lower levels of trust and confidence in others (the dependent aspect of interpersonal attachment) as well as higher levels of fear of rejection and being unloved. These, in turn, were linked to more obvious signs of mental illnesses and anxiety.
Results also suggested that interpersonal attachment styles, which fully accounted for the relationship between the latter two categories, may be mediating the interaction between emotional attachment to the dog and mental health burden. The authors draw the following conclusion: “stronger emotional attachment to pets might reflect a compensatory attachment strategy for people who were not able to establish secure relationships to other people during childhood. Those people may build more close relationships with pets that might be perceived as more reliable and less threatening.”