Pets are good sources of social and emotional support for everyone, not just people facing health challenges, new research suggests.

"We observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than nonowners on several dimensions,” study researcher Allen McConnell, of Miami University in Ohio, said in a statement. “Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extroverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than nonowners.” [America's Favorite Pets]

Pet ownership has been on the rise the last few decades. A study in 2006 by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association determined that about two-thirds of American households (71.1 million) have at least one pet. In comparison, 56 percent of households had a pet in 1988, the first year the survey was conducted. 

McConnell's group conducted several studies of pet owners.

First they surveyed 217 people, determining differences between pet owners and nonowners interms of well-being, personality type and attachment style. They found that pet owners were happier, healthier and better adjusted than were nonowners.

The researchers then studied 56 dog owners, finding that pet owners who thought their dogs increased their feelings of belonging, self-esteem and meaningful existence had greater well-being than those who didn't perceive that their pet fulfilled their social needs.

They then asked 96 pet owners who were undergraduates to remember and write about a time they were excluded. They were then asked to either write about their favorite pet, their favorite friend or to draw a map of their college campus. Both writing about a pet or a friend reduced the feelings of rejection brought forth by thinking about being excluded. Surprisingly, both pets and friends staved off the feelings of rejection equally.

All in all, the researchers found that even healthy people benefit from pets. Pet owners are just as close to key people in their lives as to their animals, which serve as important sources of social and emotional support.

“The present work presents considerable evidence that pets benefit the lives of their owners, both psychologically and physically, by serving as an important source of social support,” the researchers wrote in the paper, published online by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “Whereas past work has focused primarily on pet owners facing significant health challenges … the present study establishes that there are many positive consequences for everyday people.”

This article was reprinted with permission from LiveScience.

Related on LiveScience: