Article written by Mark Travers
Originally published by Forbes (Sun, Oct 15, 2023)
Everyone knows that dogs are a man’s best friend—but cats can be great companions too. What does the research say about well-being differences between cat and dog owners?
A recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that dog owners tend to have higher self-esteem than those without pets. Cat owners, on the other hand, appear to have slightly lower self-esteem compared with their non-pet owning counterparts. These findings are consistent with other psychological research regarding pet ownership and well-being.
So, is the debate settled? Not really, but there are good reasons to believe that dog ownership confers an extra layer of well-being protection. Here are three.
1. Physical Activity And Social Interaction
A study published in PLOS ONE found that dog ownership is more strongly associated with increased physical activity than cat ownership—a finding consistent with other studies on this topic. Since dogs are bundles of energy, they need regular exercise. This means dog owners are more likely to stay active, which is a well-known booster for mental health and general well-being.
Whether it’s an early morning jog, a visit to the dog park or even enrolling one’s dog in training classes, dog owners are often engaged in physical activity. This requires that dog owners get out of the house (another booster for mental health) and provides them opportunities to see friends and meet new people (yet another mental health booster). The shared love for dogs becomes an instant conversation starter, leading to the formation of social bonds and a sense of belonging.
Cats, on the other hand, are independent creatures that prefer the confines of their owners’ homes. They might venture out on their own, but it’s not the same as taking one’s dog to the park. This independent behavior doesn’t initiate the same level of physical activity or social interaction that dog ownership does.
2. Personality Differences In Pet Owners
Personality traits also play a role in determining happiness among pet owners. One study found that dog and cat owners differ in terms of the Big Five personality traits: neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness.
The authors of the research found that dog owners were more agreeable and less neurotic than cat owners. Dog owners were also found to be more extroverted, which is another indicator of well-being.
Of course, there is a chicken-or-egg argument to made here: Is it dogs that make their owners happy or are happy people more likely to choose dogs as pets? It’s likely that the direction of causality goes both ways.
The authors write, “Although there may not be many differences between those who own pets and those who do not, clearly owning a dog is associated with beneficial outcomes.”
3. Gender Differences In Pet Ownership And Self-Esteem
A careful look at one data set reveals that male dog owners report higher self-esteem than men without pets. On the other hand, female cat owners report lower self-esteem than women without pets.
It is possible that “dog dads” might be drawn to their companions to perceive themselves as a pack member, or even a pack leader, which might give their self-esteem a boost. Their self-esteem might also be boosted by all the compliments they receive for their pet when they are out walking it. Conversely, women who own cats might face “old maid” or “cat lady” stereotypes, which could cause a sense of disconnect from society.
So, what’s the verdict? Like most topics that fall under the umbrella of happiness research, the answer is not straightforward. While it is true that dog owners are “forced” into happiness-promoting situations (fresh air, activity, socialization, etc.) cat owners can find their own happy place when their warm little friend is curled up in a ball by their feet.
Perhaps the most important point to keep in mind is that you should choose a pet that complements your lifestyle. If you’re an outdoorsperson who craves companionship, owning a dog is likely going to be an effective pathway to happiness. If you’re a homebody who prefers a less needy companion, a cat might suit you better. And, if you’re happy as you currently are, it’s okay to wait until next year, or the year after, to add a pet to the mix.