Companionship, Care, Connection: Family Pets and Well-being

Gaby Novoa and Laetitia Martin

July 7, 2020

Social connections are widely recognized in research for their positive impact on a person’s quality of life. They can help develop a sense of belonging, provide emotional support and play an important role in overall health and well-being. But what about our connections with our other family members – our pets? This is a question that is even more relevant as we collectively try to adapt to a new reality marked by physical distancing and isolation measures, during which many people are spending more time with their pets while not spending as much time in person with family and friends, while others may be inclined to adopt or foster a new pet.

In 2018, approximately 41% of households in Canada surveyed had at least one dog while 38% had at least one cat (with overlap between the two groups) – with 8.2 million dogs and 8.3 million cats a part of homes across the country.1

Pets can support psychological and physical well-being

A considerable amount of literature has shown that pets can have a positive impact on the psychological and physical well-being of their owners. Researcher Deborah L. Wells asserts that a good relationship with an animal contributes to mental health, as research has shown that pets can mitigate the effects of stressful life events – a particularly relevant finding during the COVID-19 pandemic and the transitions families are experiencing across Canada. Froma Walsh echoes this, stating that pets provide the emotional support that facilitates coping, recovery and resilience. This value is amplified in times of transition, distress and adversity.2

Nathan Battams, Communications Manager at the Vanier Institute, reflects on the role of animal companionship in supporting mental health amid the pandemic:

After non-essential workplaces closed and my team rapidly transitioned to working from home, I lost or had to suddenly adapt nearly all of my established routines and schedules. As someone with ADHD and anxiety, these “anchors” are crucial for my mental health and well-being. However, one constant for me throughout this difficult period was my partner’s cat Sirius, who was 17 years old, lived with diabetes and had been diagnosed with leukemia in early March. Whether I was giving him insulin at sharply scheduled times, pausing to feed him meals or taking him out for little walks, providing care to Sirius grounded me, helping me to re-establish routines and take care of myself.

Other psychologically beneficial effects of relationships with pets have been identified, such as lessened anxiety, loneliness and depression.3 June McNicholas et al. have raised the idea of the “catalyst effect” animals can have, in that they often promote social contact between individuals.4 Jennifer Arkell, involved with the Sit With Me organization5 for nearly eight years, has taken in close to 15 dogs waiting for a permanent home. She says her experience of having animals has been a source of connection between people, noting that she has maintained relationships with some of the people who have adopted the dogs that she has fostered.

Barbara Cartwright, CEO of Humane Canada,6 underlines the contribution of animals to an owner’s physical health, specifically in the case of dogs, given the required exercise of going for a walk or a run. “Animals provide a great deal of joy to people’s lives, they bring routine, they bring someone to laugh with, to play with. They also bring a boost to mental health,” Cartwright says.

Pets can promote socialization among children and youth

Recent clinical research has also demonstrated health benefits among specific population groups. In particular, animals are reported to promote educational socialization benefits among young children and youth.7 One study cites higher levels of empathy among children with pets compared with those without, and notes that relationships with pets help to develop responsibility, affection, first-aid and concern for other living beings.8

These relationships to pets – youth’s “silent counsellors, best friends, and even surrogate siblings”9 – also allow children to experience the stages of a life cycle, from pregnancy to potential illness to death of a loved one. Early encounters with this type of loss may help to tackle the taboo of talking about death as children emerge into later years.10

Family cohesion often centres around pets

Pets can function as the “glue” within a family, enhancing communication and interaction through centring family life on a shared commonality.11 Caring for, and disciplining, animals as a family can aid in establishing rules, roles, authority and boundaries, offering many learning opportunities. Talking to one’s dog as well as one’s spouse was related to greater life and marital satisfaction, one study found.12 The development of these practices is underlined by the choice often made by young adults, both single and in couples, to raise pets ahead of or in place of raising children.

Pets can provide support for family members living with anxiety and dementia

The beneficial effect of animals for people with severe anxiety disorders is particularly well documented. By creating a barrier between their owners and the outer world, service dogs can help reduce anxiety and hyper-vigilance, particularly in people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.13 For the latter, as well as for those with severe walking disabilities, service dogs have the effect of increasing the mobility capacity of individuals outside their home, thus promoting integration into the community.14 These are all benefits that help reduce the isolation of socially vulnerable people.

One study cites the value of companion animals for elder family members with dementia, offering comfort during family gatherings that otherwise have the potential of triggering anxiety and confusion. Having an animal in these contexts, to sit with and pet, has the ability to soothe and calm, and thus can allow for greater inclusion in family interactions.15 Russ Mann, Senior Advisor to the Vanier Institute and retired Colonel, states that “service dogs can and do change lives” and highlights the importance of this transformative connection for Veterans.

Specifically trained service dogs can contribute to the long-term treatment and mitigation of PTSD, anxiety disorders, depressive disorders and physical disabilities.16 Walsh notes that these service animals are not to be regarded as pets – they are trained to take part in the owner’s healing, contributing to both to this relationship and the dynamic of said owner’s caregivers.

Nearly 1 in 10 who donated to a charity choose organizations focused on animal welfare

While pets, be they service or companion animals, bring much to their owners, the reciprocity of this relationship also contributes to the owner’s quality of life. Some research has shown that giving or volunteering has a beneficial effect on an individual’s well-being.17 According to data from a recent survey conducted by the Vanier Institute of the Family, the Association for Canadian Studies and Leger, nearly 1 in 10 people who donated time or money to a charity chose to do so to an association that looks after the well-being of animals (9.2%).18

In the same vein, providing for the daily needs of one’s pet can also be beneficial for the owner, as noted by Cartwright. For people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the responsibility of taking care of an animal can help them integrate and maintain a daily routine.19 Getting out of bed in the morning to feed or take a pet out, especially taking one’s dog for walks or runs, are examples of healthy behaviors that can contribute to the owners’ well-being. Successfully performing tasks, whether complex or not, is also known to improve self-esteem.

Adoptions and fostering have increased anywhere from 30% to 60% amid the COVID-19 pandemic, says Humane Canada

For those who need an extra challenge, the animal welfare community offers many opportunities to connect through more formal volunteering. In Arkell’s discussion of her experience, she says that it is all the more rewarding when the challenge is great. To succeed in training a difficult dog otherwise destined for euthanasia, to the point where they become adoptable again, brings her great fulfilment. She describes the experience as enriching, even if this necessarily implies a grieving process – that of saying goodbye to a foster dog to which she has devoted herself and become attached.

Like Arkell, protecting and promoting the well-being of pets seems to be a common value for many of us. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, several shelters appealed to the public to help empty their facilities as much as possible, and the response from the public was overwhelming. As of June 2, 2020, Cartwright estimated a 30% to 60% increase in the number of adoptions and fostering placements, depending on the region.

But, as  Arkell says, “the challenge is not just finding a dog for the family, but finding the right foster or adoptive family for the dog,” which recalls here the importance of reciprocity in the relationship between humans and pets, an important element in developing a meaningful connection.

Gaby Novoa is responsible for Communications at the Vanier Institute of the Family.

Laetitia Martin, Vanier Institute on secondment from Statistics Canada


  1. Canadian Animal Health Institute, “Latest Canadian Pet Population Figures Released” (January 28, 2019). Link:
  2. Froma Walsh, “Human-Animal Bonds II: The Role of Pets in Family Systems and Family Therapy,” Family Process, 48(4), 481–499 (December 2009).
  3. Marta Reis et al. “Does Having a Pet Make a Difference? Highlights from the HBSC Portuguese Study.” European Journal of Developmental Psychology 548–564 (April 17, 2017). Link:
  4. June McNicholas et al. “Pet Ownership and Human Health: A Brief Review of Evidence and Issues,” Education and Debate (November 24, 2005). Link:
  5. Sit With Me is a non-profit organization dedicated to dog fostering in the Ottawa Gatineau region. Link:
  6. Humane Canada is Canada’s federation of SPCAs and Humane Societies dedicated to the advancement of animal welfare in the country. Link:
  7. Walsh, “Human-Animal Bonds II: The Role of Pets in Family Systems and Family Therapy.”
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Katherine Arnup, “Death and Dying in Canada,” The Vanier Institute of the Family (May 2018). Link:
  11. Walsh, “Human-Animal Bonds II: The Role of Pets in Family Systems and Family Therapy.”
  12. Ibid.
  13. Kristine Aanderson. “Wounded Warriors Canada: Service Dog Prescriber Guidelines,” Wounded Warriors Canada (March 4, 2019). Link: (PDF).
  14. Ibid.
  15.  Walsh, “Human-Animal Bonds II: The Role of Pets in Family Systems and Family Therapy.”
  16. Aanderson. “Wounded Warriors Canada: Service Dog Prescriber Guidelines.”
  17. Caroline E. Jenkinson et al. “Is Volunteering a Public Health Intervention? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis or the Health and Survival of Volunteers,” BMC Public Health (August 23, 2013). Link: Elizabeth W. Dunn et al. “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness,” Science, 319(5870), 1687–1688 (March 21, 2008). Link:
  18. A survey by the Vanier Institute of the Family, the Association for Canadian Studies and Leger, conducted June 1–3, 2020, included approximately 1,500 individuals aged 18 and older, interviewed using computer-assisted web-interviewing technology in a web-based survey. Using data from the 2016 Census, results were weighted according to gender, age, mother tongue, region, education level and presence of children in the household in order to ensure a representative sample of the population. No margin of error can be associated with a non-probability sample (web panel in this case). However, for comparative purposes, a probability sample of 1,512 respondents would have a margin of error of ±2.52%, 19 times out of 20.
  19. Aanderson. “Wounded Warriors Canada: Service Dog Prescriber Guidelines.”
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