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04/10/2016, 20:28

Pet therapy: Romantic relationships can benefit from puppy love

A study published recently in the human-animal interaction journal Anthrozoos suggests that owning a pet could do wonders for your love life. 

A study published recently in the human-animal interaction journal Anthrozoos suggests that owning a pet could do wonders for your love life.

Canadian researchers Anika Cloutier, currently at Queen’s University, and Johanna Peetz from Carleton University, teamed up to look at whether pet owners were romantically better off than non-pet owners and, if so, the reasons why this might be the case.

In the series of three studies, Cloutier and Peetz began their investigation by interviewing 110 American pet owners about their personal beliefs of how pets influenced their romantic relationships. The sample included couples that were married, engaged and dating, and who had been together for between 4 months and 32 years. The pets they owned were similarly diverse, including dogs, cats, fish and even a chicken.

“We wanted to include different species because pets can be so varied,” said Cloutier.

In the initial round of questioning, an overwhelming 86.5 per cent of respondents reported that the romantic effects of pet ownership were predominantly positive, 8 per cent felt no impact, and only 4.5 per cent of respondents believed that their pets had a negative influence on their connection with their romantic partner.

“Pets can be a source of disagreement between couples, but for the most part, the judgment was quite positive with just minor issues,” explained Cloutier.

In light of this, the researchers sought to understand what these positive and negative experiences might be by comparing the nature of these benefits between pet owners and non-pet owners.

A more detailed second study revealed that the overall quality of a relationship was superior in couples who owned pets. Also rated as being better among this group was how responsive owners rated their partners, and how invested they were in their romantic relationship.

But, despite these pros, pet ownership wasn’t without its drawbacks.

“Intimacy was the one area where we didn’t see a lot of positive benefits,” says Cloutier, apparently referring to the fact that cats and dogs in the bedroom aren’t exactly an aphrodisiac.

So, why would pets be good for relationships at a less intimate level? Does the presence of a pet change the way couples relate to one another, or are pet owners simply more romantic to start with?

“One important caveat is that these were correlation studies and so we can’t conclude causation at this stage,” says Cloutier. “It would be great to be able to compare romantic relationships in couples before and after getting a pet.”

Nevertheless, Cloutier believes that the presence of a pet does provide a direct benefit to many couples.

“Pets appear to increase commitment between partners,” says Cloutier. “We did have some people say that getting a pet was a good way to evaluate a partner and their future parenting techniques. Some said a pet was an opportunity to grow their family.”

Cloutier also found that the romantic benefits of pet ownership didn’t depend on whether or not the couple already had children.

“We controlled for whether the couples had children and found that the effect occurred regardless of whether children were present,” she added.

In a third study, the researchers focused on how pets benefit relationships. Previous studies had found empathy to be crucial in the maintenance of positive relationships, so Cloutier speculated that perhaps pets might provide opportunities for people to “practice their empathetic abilities”.

The results suggested that the number of years a person had owned a pet was positively linked with their level of empathy, which in turn was correlated with various measures of relationship success. These included how committed the couples were, their sense of identity as a couple, and the extent of their “relationship maintenance behaviours” — science-speak for telling your partner how much you love them, and how much you want the relationship to last.

While this is good news for pets and couples alike, Cloutier suggests some care for anyone hoping that a pet will help mend a troubled relationship.

“We’re definitely not recommending that pets should be adopted with the intention of repairing a relationship, they are not objects. Instead, they are something to help people,” she explains.

Cloutier added that, if you are already in a relationship with a pet, and wondering what impact your pet may already be having, that the type of pet you have does count. Breed data was collected but not analyzed as part of the study, and there were lots of individual differences.

However, Cloutier concludes, “When it came to emotional benefits, dogs were certainly better than cats.” Good to know!

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