Good grief? The psychological ups and downs of pet ownership

Noah Pasley

Though the weather changes on a whim, many Colorado State University students have one constant throughout the snow and sunshine — the need to take their furry friend out for a walk. But often unseen are the psychological effects of owning a pet. 

While there are clear material benefits to owning pets, such as general security and eliminating pests, there are also positive psychological effects according to “Friends with Benefits,” a research paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2011 by Allen McConnell and Christina Brown. 

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The first study conducted by the researchers sought to explore the relationship between pet ownership and physical and psychological well-being, according to the paper.

Physical well-being was measured by what symptoms participants experienced, whereas psychological well-being measured how participants scored on different personality traits, such as agreeableness and attachment styles.

The study’s results showed that pet owners had “greater self-esteem (and) greater levels of exercise and physical fitness” compared to non-owners and that owners tended to be less lonely. It also found that pet owners tended to be more conscientious and more extroverted. 

Erin Allen, a social worker with the Argus Institute at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, said that the unique relationships people have with their pet can make it more difficult when it comes time to determine treatment or end-of-life decisions for their pet.

The Argus Institute is an emotional support service within the hospital to help people who have come in with their pet for treatment, Allen said. 

Even if your dog is the most supportive being in your life, … it’s not supported across the board to take personal time to process your grief.” -Erin Allen, social worker with the Argus Institute at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital

“Our role is to provide support for the human side of the equation when someone comes in with their pet to receive medical treatment,” Allen said.

Some of the services the Argus Institute provides are helping give clients updates while their pet is in surgery, especially during longer operations, and giving clients “all the options” so they can work out their feelings about treatment, Allen said. The Argus Institute also provides short-term grief counseling services for clients who have lost their pet.

“Pets are like … a link to an individual or to a time in someone’s life,” Allen said, such as a pet that belonged to a deceased spouse or to a kid who’s moved away.

“We’re not only helping this person make medical choices for this pet; we have to realize this pet is also a link to this spouse, … so the pressure of making the right decision is even that much more heightened in this situation,” Allen said.

Allen also said that grief over an animal can be harder to process because it is a “disenfranchised” grief.

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“Society doesn’t really promote it; you don’t get bereavement days because your dog died,” Allen said. “Even if your dog is the most supportive being in your life, … it’s not supported across the board to take personal time to process your grief.”

Allen said the death of a pet can also be difficult because pets often help people through other losses as well, like the death of a partner or the loss of a job.

“Whenever it’s that pet’s end of life … you start to grieve again all those previous losses,” Allen said.

In addition, Allen said they also promote involving kids “appropriately” for their developmental level, recounting an experience where a kid kept a calendar to mark how many good days and bad days his hamster had to make the decision about end-of-life choices. 

“Often the death of a pet is a child’s first experience with death, so as kids get 7, 8, 9 years old, … they start to realize their own mortality,” Allen said. “Kids function in a very black-and-white state, … and medicine doesn’t, so there are going to be some unknowns.” 

Noah Pasley can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @PasleyNoah.