Our primary aim in the current study was to examine the relations between pet ownership and PPDS and between attitude towards pets and motherhood. Based on prior findings suggesting that animal-assisted interventions reduce the number and severity of depressive symptoms, we generally predicted that pet ownership would protect against PPDS. With regard to the likelihood of women having had at least five PPDS or to number of symptoms, results generally do not support the hypothesis that pet ownership has a protective effect on the development or severity of PPDS. One explanation for this discrepancy between relevant, prior findings, and the current results may be related to differences in sample compositions across studies. For example, in earlier research, the beneficial effects of pet ownership, attachment towards pets or of human–animal interaction on depression symptoms was examined in elderly or patients in hospitals or sanatoriums (e.g. Souter and Miller 2007). Conversely, the current sample was drawn from a community sample of younger women who likely have much higher levels of functioning (e.g. they participated in a series of University-based research studies conducted in the context of the Family Dog Project and/or accessed popular social networking services). In line with this explanatory hypothesis, others also did not find differences in depression between pet owners and non-owners in working women (Watson and Weinstein 1993). The authors interpreted their results as indicating that working women may not have sufficient time to spend with pets, resulting in little effect of differences in pet ownership on depression.
One exception to the general lack of an effect of pet ownership on the development or severity of PPDS was an interaction effect between pet ownership and perception of maternity as a burdensome female role. Women less likely to perceive maternity in this manner were also less likely to develop at least five PPDS, regardless of whether they were owners or not, and women more likely to perceive maternity in this manner were also more likely to develop at least five PPDS, with this effect being stronger for owners than non-owners. Mothers who found motherhood burdensome may suffer from greater emotional distress and thus have a higher risk to suffer from PPDS. 97% of respondents designated themselves as primarily responsible for the pet, alone or with the help of someone (mainly from the same household). Of the 505 pet owners, only 12 declared that someone else was primarily responsible for the animal. For a mother who finds motherhood difficult, responsible pet-keeping may be yet another difficulty that has the potential to enhance emotional distress. However, it is also possible that mothers who suffered from PPDS consequently found therefore maternity as burdensome.
Of note, in the analyses predicting PPDS as a binary dependent variable from predictors including the Burdensome maternity subscale, we could not equalize the number of owners and non-owners, as the size of the latter sample would have been too small. As such, the corresponding results could have been due to the considerably higher number of pet owners in the examined sample. Replication with a more balanced sample is warranted in future research.
Related, the relationship between perception of maternity as a burdensome role and pet ownership was moderated by attitude towards pets. Pet owners with a more positive attitude towards pets are more likely to find maternity as a burdensome role than owners with a less positive attitude. Women with a more positive attitude towards pets may worry more about their pet and spend more time to take care for it (Blouin 2013). This attitude can result in pet ownership sometimes being difficult and this feeling may be generalized to any dependent, regardless of whether or not participants have experienced motherhood.
Also with regard to the likelihood of women having had at least five PPDS or to number of symptoms, our results are in line with previous findings on lack of social support and lower education as main risk factors of postpartum depression (O’Hara and McCabe 2013). Specifically, in the current study, lower social support was associated with increased likelihood of women having PPDS and, among women with such feelings, lower education was associated with greater number of symptoms.
Our findings revealed that two Big Five personality traits, conscientiousness and emotional stability, were associated with the likelihood/number of PPDS. Specifically, higher conscientiousness was associated with reduced likelihood of having had at least five PPDS and lower emotional stability was associated with greater number of symptoms. These results are generally consistent with prior findings on a combination of high neuroticism combined with low agreeableness, conscientiousness, and extraversion corresponding to a “Depressive Personality” (Chien et al. 2007); meta-analyses suggesting that high neuroticism, low conscientiousness, and extraversion are associated with depression (i.e. broad diagnosis of unipolar depression and specific diagnosis of major depressive disorder) (Kotov et al. 2010), and other data indicating a link between emotional instability and depression (e.g. Bunevicius et al. 2008) and between neuroticism and depression (Song et al. 2008) (emotional instability and neuroticism are parts of the same personality dimension; Digman 1990). More specifically, several meta-analyses revealed associations between neuroticism and postpartum depression (O’Hara and Swain 1996) and our current results replicate these findings.
Our findings also indicate relations between women’s thoughts regarding motherhood and PPDS. Among women in general, higher scores on the Conscious maternity subscale were associated with an increased likelihood of having had at least five PPDS. Among women who have had at least five PPDS, however, lower scores on this scale were associated with greater number of symptoms. Differently stated, when women as a group are considered, those who score higher on the Conscious maternity subscale are more likely to have had at least five PPDS but when only women who present with at least five symptoms are considered, those who score lower on the Conscious maternity subscale have less symptoms. Of note, these results are to be interpreted with caution, as albeit in the acceptable range, the Conscious maternity subscale had questionable internal consistency in the current sample.
Although in the absence of prior theory or data on the specific relationship between this cognitive representation of motherhood and postpartum depression we are reluctant to extensively reflect on or speculate about these results, examining the item content of this subscale may help generate relevant explanatory hypotheses. Women scoring higher on this scale tend to consider appropriate livelihood, relationship stability, healthy lifestyle, and conscious preparation for motherhood prior to parenting as important. Women with these beliefs, if and when their expectations are not met (which, to some extent, unavoidably happens at one point or another), such as they experience poverty, relationship instability, or poor health, may be more prone to developing symptoms of depression. On the other hand, mothers who already exhibit symptoms of depression may have pre-existing depressogenic schemas, including apathy about the future, such as about preparation for motherhood. This depressogenic schema may also contribute to these women experiencing more and more severe symptoms. Independently of the depressogenic schema, those women who for some reason prepare for motherhood less consciously later may face difficulties that can cause the occurrence of more symptoms. These are testable hypotheses that, along with other mechanisms or third variables that may explain these seemingly discrepant findings, are worthwhile targets of investigation in future studies.
Another finding was that among those who have children, pet owners perceive maternity as more burdensome than non-owners. Of the 243 mothers who completed the questionnaire, the majority had one or two children and only 13 had three or more. As such, the number of children was not taken into account in the analyses. Among mothers, 201 women had at least one child 3 years old or younger. Although the number of children has not been established as a risk factor of postpartum depression, Gove and Geerken (1977) revealed that rate of demands reported by wives increases as the number of children increases and decreases as the age of the youngest child increases. In their study, non-working wives reported more life demands than working wives. Mainly among non-working wives, the desire to be alone increased with the number of children and decreased as age of the youngest child increased. Also in this group, the presence of children increased the rate of psychiatric symptoms, perhaps due to lack of adult interaction, time for themselves, opportunity to use skills such as are those associated with having a job, or lack of other sources of gratification (Gove and Geerken 1977). These data and interpretations are consistent with the implications of our finding that mothers with a child 3 years old or younger stay at home with their little and very dependent child and have less opportunity to meet and interact with other adults. If women perceive children and pets as playing somewhat similar roles in the family, the presence of an animal can actually resemble an increase in the number of (dependent) children.
Childless women who own a pet perceived motherhood as less difficult on the Burdensome maternity scale. This effect of pet-keeping can be very important from a therapeutic point of view for women whose psychological characteristics play a dominant role in their infertility (Negro-Vilar 1993). It stands to reason that many young couples get a pet prior to planning having children, as for them, taking care of a pet may be a good chance to practice caring for a dependent.
Taken together, these findings support the hypothesis that there is a relationship between women’s cognitive representations of motherhood and pet ownership and suggest that, to some degree, women perceive children and pets as playing somewhat similar roles in the family. These outcomes are in line with those obtained in previous studies suggesting that owners can develop strong emotional ties with their pets and that a bond similar to that between a human mother and her infant can be formed between a human owner and her/his dog (Serpell 2002). Supposedly, mothers who have a child and a pet try to take care for the child and the animal in a similar manner and thus may find motherhood burdensome. This assumption is supported by the vast majority of owners having designated themselves as the person primarily responsible for the animal in this study.
A few limitations are worthy of note. First, to assess participants’ attitude towards motherhood, we employed the Maternity Representations Questionnaire (Papay et al. 2014). Initial reports indicated that the psychometric properties of the subscales fell in the acceptable range, with some at the lower end of such range (Cronbach αs ranging from .60 to .70). No other questionnaire that measures motherhood-related thoughts and feelings, suitable for use with mothers and childless women, exists in the literature (let alone one validated on a Hungarian sample).
Second, in two cases, we modified existing, psychometrically validated questionnaires to use in our study, albeit no major changes were made. It was important that we balance maximizing our ability to address our research questions with minimizing participant burden, that is, for example in the case of the LAPS (Johnson et al. 1992), we needed to modify the scale to be appropriate for use with pets beyond dogs and cats. However, the online questionnaire package was comprised of demographic questions and scales and questions about perceived social support, past and present pet ownership, attitude towards pets, current pet-keeping practices, attitude towards motherhood, personality, and past PPDS, with a total of 90 items, with a minimum completion time of ~ 15 min. Nevertheless, the modified questionnaires had excellent internal consistency estimates in this sample, suggesting confidence in the present results.
Third, we asked mothers with a child 3 years old or younger to retroactively report on their PPDS. As there is no consensus in the literature as to what constitutes the postpartum period for research purposes, we chose the 3-year cut-off based on our national legislation and also given reason to believe that mothers with a child 3 years old or younger are in a life circumstance similar to when they experienced the symptoms (e.g. as they are typically still at home with their child). Nevertheless, the effects of a potential recall bias on the accuracy of recalled memories have to be considered. Related, it is important to mention that these results do not generalize to women who reach diagnostic levels of postpartum depression. Yet, including women only if they reached such clinical levels would have greatly reduced the number of participants we were able to enrol.
However, some of the predictors and covariates (social support, pet attitude, attitude towards motherhood) represent the subjects’ current state that can cause bias when examining the associations between the variables. As such, our investigation and results should be considered as preliminary indication about relations among the phenomena that were of interest in this research and future studies may benefit from assessment of these associations during the actual postpartum period in women who reach diagnostic levels. In the current design, women who currently suffer from PPDS could also participate and, compared to those who had only suffered from PPDS in the past, their symptoms may affect their responses. Investigated associations during the actual postpartum period would also be an approach to rule out any such effects.