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Tails of Laughter: A Pilot Study Examining the Relationship between Companion Animal Guardianship and Laughter

Valeri, Robin Maria. Tails of Laughter: A Pilot Study Examining the Relationship between Companion Animal Guardianship (Pet Ownership) and Laughter. Society & Animals, Vol 14, No.3 , 2006, 275-293

Research on pets has revealed a strong bond between humans and their pets as well as many benefits of having pets. A substantial body of research demonstrates the benefits ranging from positive impacts on health and wellness to enhanced feelings of life satisfaction and well being. Research on laughter has demonstrated the social nature of laughter in both humans and nonhumans and has identified the beneficial effects of laughter. No research, however, has examined the role of pets in laughter, serving either as a stimulus for laughter or as a surrogate human with whom to laugh.
Several investigations on the human-nonhuman animal bond suggest that pets can serve as surrogate humans by providing as attachment figures, support, and companionship. These findings suggest that pet ownership has both perceived and actual benefits. In addition, studies have found that dog owners may experience more benefits from their pets than do cat owners. One of the benefits implicated is related to occurrences of laughter. Research on laughter suggests a strong social component to laughter and implies that laughter is more likely to occur in the presence of others, especially in response to a friend’s laughter. Laughter is more likely to result from a spontaneous situation, specifically, something an individual or another did or said rather than from sources such as the media or a canned joke. First, with respect to the social component on laughter, the author cites studies in which observe that people are more likely to laugh in the presence of others than when alone and that people view their pets as friends or family members. Given these considerations, it is reasonable to argue that pets could serve as a surrogate human companion with whom to share a laugh. A second aspect of laughter is that people are more likely to laugh in response to a spontaneous situation rather than the media, recalled event, or a memorized joke. Therefore, it is suggested that a pet’s behavior may provide the stimulus for laughter. Thus, it is possible that a pet’s real or perceived playfulness and activity will create spontaneous situations that result in laughter. Results of previous studies have demonstrated that dogs—compared to cats—were rated as being more playful, excited, and active. In addition, research on pets suggests that dogs provide many social and emotional benefits to their owners and that dog owners tend to benefit more from their pets than do cat owners. Given these considerations, it is hypothesized that dog owners will report laughing more frequently than either cat owners or people who own neither dogs nor cats.

A research study was conducted as a first attempt to explore the relationship between the ownership or presence of pets and laughter. Since the majority of research examining the benefits of pets has focused on people who own dogs or cats, the current research examines the relationship between laughter and pet ownership among four mutually exclusive groups of 1) dog owners, 2) cat owners, 3) both dogs and cats owners, and 4) neither dog or cat owners. A group of 95 adult pet owners and non-owners consisting of 64 females and 31 males completed questions regarding pet ownership, demographic information and were asked to keep a laughter record for one day. Participants were instructed to carry the log with them throughout the day and record all incidences 1) in which they laughed 2) what made them laugh 3) how hard they laughed, and 4) who was present. Of the respondents, 34% reported owning one or more dogs, 19% reported owning one or more cats, 17% reported owning both dogs and cats, and 30% reported owning neither a dog nor a cat.

Overall results revealed a distinct pattern for pet ownership. Dog owners and people who owned both dogs and cats reported laughing more frequently than cat owners, as did people who owned neither. The most frequent source of laughter was spontaneous laughter resulting from a situation. People who owned both dogs and cats reported most frequent spontaneous laughter resulting from an incident involving a pet. Dog owners reported less, and cat owners reported the least. Dog owners and people who owned both dogs and cats reported laughing more frequently in the presence of their pets than did cat owners.

The author explores interpretations and implications of the study. As stated previously, this study provides a preliminary exploration of the role of pets in the natural occurrence of laughter by comparing everyday laughter with pet owners and non pet owners. The author posits that the results suggest a complex relationship between pet ownership and laughter. Dogs may serve as friends with whom to laugh or their behaviors may provide a greater source of laughter. Given the findings, laughter in response to a spontaneous situation suggests that it is when pets are present (versus absent) that differences between people who own dogs and people who own only cats occur. This finding may be related to owners’ perceptions of their pets. As mentioned previously in a cited study, it was reported that dog owners perceive their dogs as being more playful, active, affectionate, and excitable than cat owners perceive their cats. These differences in behavior, whether real or perceived, may provide the basis for differences in laughter between people who own dogs and people who only own cats. A study reported that dog owners perceive their dogs to be friendlier, more approachable to strangers, and less aggressive toward people they know than cat owners perceive their cats to be. Thus, dogs, by their perceived or actual behavior, may create a welcoming atmosphere that is conducive to laughter in their presence. An alternative explanation may be that people who own only cats have a stronger preference for quiet than people who own dogs and, consequently, prefer to express themselves using quieter methods such as smiling. Alternatively, people who own both dogs and cats may be exposed to special instances in which the interactions of both dogs and cats produce an atmosphere that is perceived as amusing or humorous, therefore prompting laughter from their owners.

Limitations of the current research were identified in that most of the survey respondents apparently completed the questionnaire on a work-day. Consequently, time spent with pets was probably limited. In addition, the amount of time spent alone, with pets, and with others was not measured. Further research on the role of pets and laughter should control for, or measure, these variables so that appropriate comparisons can be made. Other limitations of the study result from the small sample size and the limited variety of species of companion animals. Replications of this study should include a variety or populations which might facilitate examining more thoroughly the relationship between laughter, type of pet, pet’s age, length of time pet owned, and participant characteristics such as age, marital status, number and age of children, and relevant personality dimensions. Lastly, future research should expand current knowledge on the relationship between pet ownership and the wide range of benefits.

Summary by Effie Heotis

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