New study shows pets perfect catalysts for building social support

New study shows pets perfect catalysts for building social support

By Patrick J. Skerrett

Harvard Health Blog

Pets can provide their owners with more than companionship. A new study shows they can also help create human-to-human friendships and social support, both of which are good for long-term health.

That’s old news to dog walkers, most of whom routinely meet neighbors, other dog walkers, or strangers on their rambles.

“I didn’t meet many people when I moved into my new neighborhood,” says Dr. Elizabeth Frates, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. “But that changed when we got Reesee, our goldendoodle. She opened the door to a new universe of people.”

A new study, published online in the journal PLoS One, shows that other kinds of pets, including cats, rabbits, and snakes, can also be catalysts for making friends and finding social support.

Survey results

To explore how pets help people form social connections, researchers from the University of Western Australia, Queensland University School of Technology, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health surveyed nearly 2,700 men and women in four cities: Perth, Australia; San Diego, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and Nashville, Tenn.

Being a pet owner was the third most common way that survey respondents said they met people in their neighborhoods. (No. 1 was by being neighbors; No. 2 was by using local streets and parks.) Pet owners were 60 percent more likely than non-pet owners to get to know people in their neighborhoods they hadn’t known before.

Dog owners, and more specifically, those who walked their dogs, were also far more likely to have reported befriending someone they met through a pet-related connection or getting social support from them.

“Pet ownership appears to be a significant factor for facilitating social interaction and friendship formation within neighborhoods,” write Dr. Linda Wood, associate professor at the University of Western Australia, and her colleagues in PLoS One. “For pet owners, this also translates into new sources of social support, both of a practical and emotionally supportive nature.”

Dr. Frates, the medical editor of “Get Healthy, Get a Dog,” a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, has seen this firsthand. When she first adopted her dog, she started going to a local dog park in the mornings to meet up with about 15 other women and their dogs.

While the dogs romped, the women talked. Sometimes the relationships went no further than knowing someone is “Captain’s mom.” Other times, they developed into true friendships.

Pets and health

“Get Healthy, Get a Dog” explores the many direct physical and mental health benefits of owning a dog. These include increased physical activity, which can help you lose or maintain weight; lowered blood pressure; and reduced stress. A study published in April in Science magazine showed that when a dog owner looked into his or her pet’s eyes, levels of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone,” increased in both owner and pet. This helped further cement the bond between the two.

Pets may also indirectly improve health by fostering social connections, which are good for long-term health. An analysis of 148 studies on the topic found that people with solid social networks are 50 percent more likely to live longer than those with limited social networks. In today’s go-it-alone world, many people have trouble making connections. The PLoS One study suggests that pet ownership may be one way to meet and interact with others.

Dogs can be good ice-breakers, making it easy for humans to start conversations. But other animals can do the same thing. Here are some open responses to the survey published in the PLoS One paper:

“I was just visiting with one of them and we mentioned that we had a rabbit and they had a rabbit, too. They became more than just acquaintances” (female, Portland).

“Their children are interested in seeing the snake and we never let children come in without parent permission. So before anyone can see the snake or handle the snake we need to have met the parents and had it OKed with them” (female, Perth).

“Having our cats as a point in common has made it easier for us to become friends” (female, Nashville).

There are many ways to become more socially connected. You can volunteer at a hospital or school. Work for a public official you believe in. Donate time to a nonprofit that strikes a chord with you. Join a choir or a sports team. Or, if you like animals, getting a pet may also do the trick.

(Patrick J. Skerrett is Executive Editor, Harvard Health Publications.)