PET TIPS: Why dogs make us happy

Which is better: cats or dogs?

Into that eternal debate, there now comes a new twist. Apparently, a growing number of people are perfectly happy to say, “Neither.”

At least, that’s the impression given by the outcome of the latest annual opinion poll conducted by the University of Chicago.

In 2018, the General Social Survey added, for the first time, a series of questions about pet ownership. But that was only the beginning of the research. The GSS is particularly valuable to social scientists because it takes those initial survey answers and overlays them with data from a variety of other sources, creating a much more detailed picture.

So, the researchers were able to single out all the people who indicated they were “very happy” with their lives, then cross-reference to see what type of pets each person owned.

Here’s the result: 36 percent of the people who had dogs said they were “very happy.” For those whose households included both dogs and cats, it was 28 percent. And for those who only had cats, it was 18 percent.

But here’s the kicker: 32 percent of the people who didn’t own any pets also claimed to be “very happy.”

So, how do we interpret these responses? One thing’s for sure: Much of the news media will get it wrong and conclude that living with a cat makes people feel depressed. But the more likely explanation is that people who have an inherent predisposition toward depression also tend to be those who have an affinity for cats.

There are also a number of other factors that could account for the survey’s results. For example, people who own dogs are also more likely to be married and to own their own home – both of which are known to contribute to feelings of happiness and satisfaction.

But at least some of the increase in happiness for dog owners can be attributed to dogs themselves. For obvious reasons, dog owners are much more likely to engage in outdoor physical activity, and exercise is strongly linked to improved mood and feelings of well-being.

In addition, dog owners are more likely to form relationships with people in their neighborhood, because they encounter each other when they’re out walking their dogs.

The GSS also included questions about how people interact with their pets, and the results suggest a stronger emotional connection with dogs. Dog owners were more likely than cat owners to say that when they’re feeling stressed, they seek comfort from their pet. They’re also more likely to play with their pet and to consider the pet a member of the family.

Okay, so there’s plenty of evidence that having a dog is good for you. But how do we account for the fact that the people who didn’t own any pets reported feeling almost as happy as the dog owners (and almost twice as happy as the cat owners)?

I haven’t seen any analysis on that, but my guess would be that most people who choose not to have pets would say they’re too busy and they’re not home very much. This implies that they’re involved in a lot of activities, and those pursuits may be providing them with a level of satisfaction similar to what they might have experienced from owning a dog.

(By the way, in case you were wondering – this survey did not ask people about other types of pets, such as birds or fish, because the numbers are too small to be statistically significant. So, who knows? Maybe those who have pet fish are the happiest people in the world.)

Debbie Gilbert has been handling dogs for 50 years and won numerous AKC obedience competitions with her late Sheltie, Sunny. She lives with her current Sheltie, Daisy.         

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