Pet Therapy for Your Love Life

Your pet can teach you a few things about human relationships.

-Susan McQuillan, MS, RDN

When prisoners participate in pet therapy programs, research suggests they not only develop mutually beneficial relationships with their new pets, but also improve their social skills and relationships with the humans in their lives. Similar results have been found in older patients who live in long-term health care facilities. Pet therapy programs have also been shown to boost the wellbeing of hospitalized children. And while the physical and mental health benefits of pet ownership for individuals are well established, a review study published in the September 2016 issue of Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People and Animals found that caring for Comet and Shadow might also teach you some of the skills that can help keep a love life alive.

The researchers looked at three studies that explored the link between pets and romantic relationships in three different ways: how individuals perceive their pets’ influence on their relationship, how the romantic relationships of pet owners compare to those of people who do not keep pets, and lastly, how your pet affects your ability to empathize, a skill that is essential to good relationships. All three studies showed positive associations between pets and partners. In the first study of how owners view their pets’ effects on their romantic relationships, more than 85% of the responses were positive, less than 5% were negative, and the rest of the responses were neutral. In a community sample of pet owners compared to non-pet owners, those with pets reported better quality relationships all around, including better partner responsiveness, higher level of well-adjusted relationships, and more investment in relationships, compared to couples who did not have pets. The final study concluded that generally, the longer a person owns a pet, the higher their empathy score.

Does this mean you should run out and adopt a dog in hopes of finding or saving a romantic relationship? “Not at all,” says Jennifer Gutstein, LCSW-R, a psychotherapist in private practice in New York. “It simply means that nurturing and developing a relationship over time with a pet can help you develop some of the same skills, like empathy, that are important for success in a romantic relationship.”

While balancing a relationship with a pet and a relationship with another human can also present challenges, especially if the pet prefers one person over the other, or one of you is not a pet lover, the benefits may outweigh the problems for those who have the time and love to devote to a pet, Gutstein adds. It’s not hard science, but the quality of relationship you have with an animal can reflect the quality of the relationships you’re capable of having with other humans.

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