One of the most commonly reported symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome is a lowered quality of life.
Could the addition of a family pet increase the well-being and energy of those suffering from fatigue?
Before you go on thinking “of course pets make you feel better“, know that they are not a panacea. Responsible pet ownership is not the easiest of endeavors. Pet ownership can increase negative emotions, add financial strain, and actually contribute negatively to your well-being. If you’re fatigued, pet ownership could end up being another drain on your already low energy levels.
But instead of leaning on your opinion (or mine) as to whether a pet will increase your energy or fatigue, let’s look at the research.
What does science have to say about pet ownership?
The science behind pet ownership and well-being
Ask any dog or cat owner whether their animal increases their well-being and you’ll get a resounding yes. And for those most part, they’re probably right. Science has shown pet ownership is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease, (1) decreased levels of loneliness and depression, (2) and higher levels of subjective well-being. (3)
But before you go thinking puppies to be the cure for chronic fatigue syndrome, know that research has also shown a shadow side to pet ownership.
There are studies that show pet ownership leads to poorer physical health, (4) an increase in psychological problems (5) and an increase in psychological vulnerability. (6) The vulnerability comes about from having an attachment to your animals. Each of these may increase your fatigue levels.
This conflicting research suggests that pet ownership is not the panacea for fatigue or psychological well-being you may have thought them to be. There are two sides to the pet ownership coin. Whether or not a pet will benefit your health depends on a lot of variables that are unique to your situation.
How does pet ownership positively affect your health?
One of the main reason for the division between whether or not pets contribute positively to your health is a lack of clarity on the outcome metrics. Is your sole outcome of pet ownership to lower your risk of heart disease? If so, pet ownership is a great idea!
But if the outcome you’re after is more subjective or vague (think, increasing your health), it becomes challenging to measure and quantify health. Does an increase in your health look like a lowering of your cholesterol? Or, a lowering of your weight? Maybe health to you is an increase in your energy? Or, does health have more to do with increasing well-being?
What science has been (kind of) able to measure and quantify is something called subjective well-being. Subjective well-being has two components:
- Affective component
- This relates to the frequency of positive or negative moods, feelings, and attitudes you experience.
- When you’re fatigued, you tend to experience more negative moods.
- Cognitive component
- This relates to how you evaluate your life overall. Some say this is synonymous with life satisfaction.
- Much like the affective component, fatigue has been shown to decrease your overall life satisfaction.
So the question becomes what moods/feelings/attitudes do pets inspire in you? And, do pets add to your overall life satisfaction? If they do, it’s not much of a leap to say that having a pet can also improve fatigue levels.
To better understand subjective well-being, let’s identify the factors that add to it and the factors that take away from it. The following factors are known to add to your well-being:
- Purpose and meaning in your life
- Fulfillment of your needs
- Positive emotions
- Social Roles
Purpose and meaning in your life
- The need for autonomy
- The need for competence
- The need for relatedness
When people are with animals, they tend to experience satiation of their need for autonomy and competence. (7)
When you spend time with your pets, you’re likely to experience positive emotions. (8) Positive emotions include feelings like joy, happiness, love, excitement, and wonder. If you’re dealing with chronic illness, ruminating on negative emotions is not uncommon. Pets can help break this cycle and help you experience a greater degree of positive emotions.
If you have a bad day at work, coming home to your role as a dog owner is often beneficial. Instead of brooding about your day, you’re out walking your dog. (9) Stopping your identification with fatigue or any other chronic illness can have positive health outcomes. Instead of being stuck in your role as “one with chronic fatigue”, you can shift your role to that of a dog owner.
How does pet ownership negatively affect your health?
The shadow side of pet ownership includes:
- Negative emotions
- Financial strain
- Sleep disturbances
- Strained relationship(s)
Pet ownership is associated with higher levels of negative emotions like anxiety, worry, anger, and disappointment. (10) Do keep in mind that pet ownership is also associated with higher levels of positive emotions as well! But if you’re fatigued, increasing the risk of experiencing negative emotions may be best avoided.
In conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome, maintaining full-time employment becomes severely compromised. This, of course, adds financial strain to one’s life. Caring for animals adds a monthly financial responsibility. The average costs for dogs and cats were around $75/month; while the average cost for horses was closer to $700/month.
If you’re dealing with chronic fatigue, eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is absolutely essential. As anyone who’s had their sleep interrupted can tell you, less sleep equates to more fatigue. There are no scientific reports that outline the degree of sleep interruption caused by animals. Though we can infer from past experiences (or from the experiences of our friends/relatives) that having a pet almost always comes with some degree of sleep interruption (at least in the first year of life).
There is research that supports the facts that having children is negatively associated with marital satisfaction. (11) This is especially true in the first few years following the birth of a child. (12) There is currently no research to show how animals impact one’s relationship(s). Though we can infer that there is likely to be some negative effects as raising pets is at least somewhat similar to raising children.
If you’re fatigued, should you own pets?
I wrote this blog to show you what the research says about pet ownership. My intent is not to change your mind one way or another but to present what the data shows.
When dealing with a chronic illness like fatigue, large lifestyle changes like those involved with pet ownership need to be carefully examined (from both a positive and negative point of view). What may seem like a great way to increase your energy, can quickly become yet another responsibility that you’re unable to attend to due to high levels of fatigue.
Below, I present a summary of what the research shows to be associated with pet ownership:
- Horse ownership adds to your sense of purpose more than owning cats or dogs. (13)
- Horse ownership is also associated with higher levels of both positive and negative emotions when compared to cat or dog ownership.
- Financially, horse ownership is the largest investment of your resources. (14)
- Horse and dog ownership improve your physical activity levels. (15)
- But because of this, they also create a greater number of restrictions in your life.
- Cats are the least likely to offer an increase in your emotional support. (16)
- But cats are also the least likely to negatively affect your relationships
- Becoming attached to your animal tends to decrease your well-being. (17)
- It is thought that more of your time is invested in being with your pet than in other (often nurturing) relationships with your friends and/or family.
- There is no “best” or “better” animal for pets between cats, dogs, or horses. (18)
- Each animal has specific costs and benefits associated with it.
- Overall, well-being between dog, cat, or horse ownership did not differ.
Will the addition of a pet to your family improve your fatigue?
Maybe. Though I think it’s important that you take a strong look into your support systems before adoption. Ensure that you have the support from your children, spouse, friends, and/or family. This needs to be a team decision. Not an individual decision.
Look into animal fostering. This can act as a trial run to see what benefits (and consequences) appear in your life with the addition of a pet. Should it be an overwhelmingly positive experience, you can then make a more educated decision.
Now, I want to hear from you!
What has pet ownership done to your fatigue levels?
Also published on Medium.