Methods: This study used a concurrent mixed methods design to collect qualitative and quantitative data between April 2019 and March 2020. The sample consisted of 117 SGM emerging adults (Mage=19.32 years, 37% racial/ethnic minority; 49.6% gender minority; 98.3% sexual minority) who lived with a pet within the past year. Participants completed a quantitative survey and then completed a semi-structured interview about their experiences with pets. Two team members coded each transcript using a template of 54 codes (Krippendorph’s α=.81). Themes were identified using an inductive analysis approach. Thematic analysis was expanded by conducting exploratory bivariate correlations between domains of pet attachment (Pet Attachment and Life Impact Scale), mental health (Brief Symptom Inventory), and SGM-related minority stressors (LGBQ Microaggressions on Campus Scale; Gender Minority Stress and Resilience Scale).
Results: Qualitative analysis identified five themes reflecting the benefits of living with pets. Almost all participants (98.92%) discussed how their pet acted as a buffer to general stress. Further, a subtheme that emerged in most interviews (73.50%) reflected that pets acted as a buffer to SGM-related stressors (e.g., microaggressions, discrimination). Pets also helped respondents cope with mental health stressors (41.88%) and contributed to their sense of purpose (58.97%) and identity development (39.32%). According to respondents, pets facilitated positive social interactions with peers and family members, which may increase social capital (24.79%). Bivariate analyses indicated that interpersonal and environmental microaggressions were positively related to all domains of pet attachment (i.e., love, emotion regulation, personal growth; rs ranging from .24-.37, p<.01). Additionally, there were positive associations between pet attachment and anxiety, somatization, and obsessive-compulsive symptoms (rs ranging from .18-.29, p<.05). Pet attachment was not significantly related to other domains of mental health or SGM stress.
Conclusion and Implications: Our study highlights the potential benefits that living with pets may provide to SGM emerging adults. The qualitative themes suggest that pets may promote wellbeing through a variety of mechanisms. The quantitative findings complement the qualitative data, as our results suggest that those with higher levels of several mental health symptoms and higher levels of exposure to minority stress report greater attachment to their pets, including reliance on the pet(s) for emotion regulation. Future research is needed to longitudinally test the mechanisms through which pets may promote wellbeing, explore directionality of these bivariate associations, and connect findings to practice.