January 19, 2012

Fur-iends with benefits

Apologies for the cheesy blog title.

My brain for the past two weeks has been a whirlwind of—well, brains. I'm in a fairly intense five-week neuroanatomy class and my neurons have been abuzz with images of brain slice after brain slice—so much that transverse sections of the brainstem were beginning to resemble a pug's face. The wrinkly cerebellum was the forehead, and the pons stained darkly resembled the snout. But I digress.

Hallucinating said "pug," combined with me missing my 11-year old greyhound and best friend Patrick (above) back home and my upcoming orientation at the Harrisburg Humane Society (so excited!) prompted me to find out: what is it about pets that, simply put, makes us feel good?
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Correlational studies of the past decade have demonstrated a clear link between pet ownership and better health: lower blood pressure, more physical fitness, less loneliness, and higher self-esteem, to name a few benefits. In a study published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers Allen McConnell and colleagues examined whether pets had the ability to eliminate the negativity felt by pet owners when faced with social rejection.

Pet owners (97 of them!—what a crazy room) were brought into the laboratory. Some were induced to feel socially rejected by writing about a time in their past when they felt socially isolated or excluded. The other half of participants did not undergo this exercise.

The pet owners were then instructed to do one of three tasks: 1. write about their pet, 2. write about their best friend, or 3. draw a map of the area (control).

As expected, those subjected to "social rejection" who drew the map felt subjectively worse than the beginning of the experiment. Those "rejected," however, who wrote about either their pet or their best friend experienced positive feelings, even after the feelings of rejection were induced. In other words, thinking about one's pet could stave off feelings of rejection not unlike thinking about your best bud.

Also interesting was the fact that positivity scores were not dependent on whether the person owned a cat or dog, or even horse, goat, or snake.

I would have liked to know how many of those pet owners actually equate or consider their pets their best friends. Personally, I know Patrick is my best friend. The fact that he has a human name makes me a little more willing to declare my undying love for him in the company of others.

Photo courtesy Mrs. Bruner's Superhero Blog.

McConnell AR, Brown CM, Shoda TM, Stayton LE, & Martin CE (2011). Friends with benefits: on the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101 (6), 1239-52 PMID: 21728449


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