Study Reveals a Link Between Mental Health and an Attachment to Pets

by Britt
Photo credit: Evgeny Atamanenko /

We have all been told at one time or another that our pets are good for our mental health. But have you ever stopped to consider how your mental health could also impact the attachment bond you form with your pet? Could your attachment to your pet hurt your mental health?

These questions and more were the inspiration behind a new study out of the University of Helsinki.

Rather than focusing solely on the benefits of dogs and cats to our mental well-being, researchers went a step better. The goal was to better understand how the relationship we form with our pets could have an impact both on us as well as on the pets themselves. They also dug into how an owner’s attachment style could impact the care they provide and our pet’s behaviors.

The research team collected information from approximately 2,500 pet owners and 3,300 pets to gather the necessary data. This included:

  • Personality traits (of owners, dogs, and cats)
  • Owner mental well-being ratings
  • Unwanted behavior traits
  • Other potential influences, like children in the household
  • Attachment styles

In terms of the relationship, they looked specifically at two types of insecure attachment – anxious and avoidant. Anxious attachment refers to owners who desire to have their pets nearby and are concerned about the risk of losing their pets. On the other end of the spectrum, avoidant attachment refers to pet owners concerned about losing their personal autonomy and, as such, seeking a higher level of independence.

The study found that cat owners with lower mental health ratings demonstrated anxious attachment to their feline friends. However, dog owners with similar mental health ratings were split between anxious attachment and avoidant attachment.

Interestingly enough, there was a clear division between the attachment styles when categorizing the relationships based on a dog’s mental well-being and potentially “unwanted” or “problem” behaviors. Dogs who demonstrated aggression or ADHD-like behavior were more likely to have avoidantly attached owners, while dogs who demonstrated fear-related behaviors were often connected to anxiously attached owners.

What does all this mean? By recognizing the connection, we can better understand how personality and attachment styles can influence one another.

For example, if a dog owner demonstrates avoidant attachment, they may not provide the security a dog desires in a potentially threatening situation. As a result, the dog may develop aggression. However, it is also possible that a dog’s aggressive response may contribute to an owner’s need for space and independence from the behavior and its impact on their daily activities.

“What made this project unique was that it involved dogs, cats, and owners alike,” explained Professor Hannes Lohi. “We need a deeper understanding of the connections between owners and pets and the associated factors so we can, for example, help people make better decisions when obtaining a pet. It’s important to acknowledge that obtaining a pet while experiencing poor mental well-being may not necessarily meet the expectations of improving it.”

Not only is this a big step forward in helping people make educated decisions about pet ownership, but it could also provide valuable guidance for trainers and behaviorists when dealing with unwanted behaviors.


Britt Kascjak is a proud pet mom, sharing her heart (and her home) with her “pack” which includes her husband John, their 2 dogs – Indiana and Lucifer – and their 2 cats – Pippen and Jinx. She has been active in the animal rescue community for over 15 years, volunteering, fostering and advocating for organizations across Canada and the US. In her free time, she enjoys traveling around the country camping, hiking, and canoeing with her pets.

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