Dr. Stephanie Richman’s research into pet rejection was inspired by an incident involving her dog Zephyr.

Dr. Stephanie Rothman and her psychology students studied the phenomenon, and the findings were recently published.

Man's best friend? BW research shows pet rejection can sting like human rebuff

November 10, 2020

Thousands of Americans have adopted dogs and cats to combat the loneliness of COVID-19 quarantine, but what is the emotional impact when a human experiences rejection by a pet?

It's a question a Baldwin Wallace University psychology professor and her students have been seeking to answer. Part of their ongoing research into the effects of pet rejection was recently published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology and highlighted in Psychology Today.

Inspired by Zephyr

Dr. Stephanie Rothman’s research into pet rejection was inspired by an incident involving her dog Zephyr.Dr. Stephanie Rothman has a long-held research interest in human rejection, but it was an experience with her own dog, Zephyr, that inspired her to mine the emotional impact of being rebuffed by a pet.

"The promise of unconditional love is what draws many of us to adopt a dog," explains Rothman. "But the pang of pain I felt after sitting down on one end of the couch to be with my dog and watching him immediately jump off to get away got me thinking about pet rejection. As I started talking to others about it, I realized I wasn't alone. Everyone had their own pet rejection story."

Pain on par with human rejection

Dr. Rothman’s pet rejection project involved eight undergraduate students who helped with data collection and coding over several semesters. Setting out to study the phenomenon, Rothman and her BW student research assistants tested the reactions of college students who were told their scents were "rejected" by a dog, compared to others who were told the dog showed "interest."

The findings showed students who were rejected experienced increased negative mood and decreased positive mood, as well as lower feelings of belongingness, meaningful existence, control and self-esteem. 

In another study, Rothman analyzed responses to an online survey asking participants to describe their experiences being rejected by pets. She found the emotional pain of being rebuffed by an animal hurts just like human rejection.

"Although some studies have shown that pets can make people feel better and improve health, my research shows that negative interactions with pets make people feel worse," Rothman says.

The glass half full

In an earlier, unpublished study, Rothman discovered that the types of pet rejection that people most commonly experience fall into three categories:

  • aggression by the animal,
  • a preference for someone else and
  • being ignored or snubbed in the moment.

Cat and dogWhile any type of pet rejection can cause distress, Rothman's research also affirms the significance of pets to our families.

"This research demonstrates the special and important role that pets play in people's lives," Rothman concludes. "If they were not important sources of social connection, people would not react so negatively to being rejected by them."

So, go ahead and help empty the shelters. The risk of rejection will likely be outweighed by the long-term reward.

See more coverage of the research on cleveland.com.