The Study of Human-Animal Interactions The CAIRC Scholarship Program Summary of the Past Researches
Summary of the Past Scholarship Research
From "Letter from CAIRC" July 2004
Research Theme:" Social Support and Mental and Physical Well-Being Provided by Companion Animals "
Shu-Feng Chang
Doctoral student, Department of Education and Human Development, Nagoya University Graduate School
Research has revealed numerous positive effects that pets have on the human body and mind. These include stress relief, improved physiological health indicators, relief of heart disease and mental illness, effects on the health of the elderly, promotion of inclusion in pet-related social networks, contributions to the owner’s sense of distinctiveness and personal image, and so on.

Most of these results, however, are derived from simple measures of social support levels. Support that humans provide each other, on the other hand, is studied using much more complex methods that classify support according to subcategories such as informational, emotional, instrumental, evaluative, and functional support. Taking existing social support theory into account, Chang has compared the similarities and differences between support humans derive from pets and support they derive from other humans.

“Unlike with people, you cannot have a conversation with a pet. Despite that fact, increasing numbers of people love their pets as they would their own children,” said Chang. “Even if we talk to pets, the conversation will undoubtedly be one-sided. I wanted to look into exactly what kind of psychological support people derive from pets, and how that support differs from that provided by other people.”

For the study, a questionnaire was distributed to 436 people, comprising university students and their family members (homemakers, retirees, and others). Chang then measured responses to the 63 questions using four measurement criteria: 1) levels of emotional relief derived from the pet (13 items), 2) social support levels (23 items), 3) feelings of loneliness (20 items), and 4) mental health indicators (7 items). Social support levels ware divided into the following categories: that derived from pets, that derived from the person the subject depends on most, and the need for social support. Levels of each support category were then measured and studied comparatively.

“The results indicated that support derived from other humans may be more necessary than that derived from pets,” said Chang. “However, of the 23 items comparing these two types of support, 22 indicated no major differences in the degree of desire for support. For instance, even on items such as ‘Listens carefully to what I say,’ and ‘Cares about whether I’m happy,’ the results indicated that people derive support from their pets. The biggest differentiating factor was seen in responses to the item ‘Exercises together with me.’ The survey respondents commonly take walks and play with their pets, but don’t do so as much with other people. This helps to confirm numerous other studies indicating that pets contribute to the health of humans.

“The results also show that pet owners experience relatively low levels of feelings of loneliness, revealing an even greater value of the emotional relief provided by pets. A breakdown of the results by the occupation of the respondents revealed that retirees derived greater levels of support from pets than from any other group. The scope of daily life experienced by the elderly is typically narrower than that of young people, leading to the potential for a lack of support from other people. Keeping pets can therefore help reduce feelings of loneliness and tedium, and add variety to lifestyles. I think that the emotional and physical support pets provide therefore has a great influence.”