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The power of pets against loneliness

Jennifer Huizen on

Published in Cats & Dogs News

If you're a pet parent, you probably know that having a meaningful bond with an animal companion can have several health benefits. According to the National Institutes of Health and the independent nonprofit organization HelpGuide.org, pet ownership can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, improve heart health by lowering blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels, and help children develop social and emotional skills. But did you know pets may also help combat loneliness?

Several studies have investigated the potential impact of pet companionship on loneliness and social isolation, and while the relationship still requires further research, there is some evidence that your furred, scaled, or feathered pet pal may help ward off feelings of isolation.

To see how pet parents fare and what science says about it, Pettable sorted through the existing research out there exploring the relationship between pet ownership and loneliness, including various scientific studies, reviews, and credible surveys.

The spread of loneliness

According to experts like the American Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, loneliness in the United States is more than just a problem for older, single people or people living in remote areas. It's an epidemic.

In a 2023 general advisory, Murthy wrote that about half of adults living in the U.S. reported feeling lonely, even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling—it harms both individual and societal health. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death," Murthy added. "The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity."

While forming more supportive, stronger social human relationships is one more way to help reduce loneliness, this isn't always easy for everyone, neither physically nor emotionally. Luckily, there's growing evidence that 2 in 3 American households already have a potential loneliness-combating tool right in front of them, a pet.

Feeling is believing

In a nationally representative survey of nonpet owners and pet owners conducted by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute and Mars Petcare, more than 4 in 5 (85%) respondents agreed that pet interaction might help reduce loneliness, while 3 in 4 (76%) agreed that human-pet interactions may positively impact social isolation. Of the pet owners surveyed, 4 in 5 said their pet helps them feel less lonely, and over half (54%) responded that their animal companion helps them connect with other humans.

Other studies confirm that generally speaking, pet owners tend to believe that pet companionship benefits their overall mental health and helps quell loneliness.

A study published in the journal Animals in 2021 conducted an online survey with 1,199 participants, 84% of whom reported having at least one companion animal. In the study, most respondents felt their pets positively impacted their mental well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. Around 85% of respondents who owned dogs and roughly 3 in 4 respondents who owned cats felt their pets had an "extremely or moderately positive effect" on their mental health.

 

Sometimes, simply believing that you're doing something to help combat a mental or physical health problem can actually help treat it. Recent scientific research even supports the idea that in certain instances, the placebo effect can be as effective as traditional medical treatments.

But when it comes to solid scientific evidence, the jury is still out as to whether pet ownership has a strong or meaningful impact on loneliness and social isolation in humans. In the article published in Animals cited above, the authors summarized: "Consistent with past research, these findings indicate that people believe their companion animals positively influenced their lives during the pandemic, but there is a lack of quantitative evidence to support these beliefs."

Science says

A 2022 scientific review published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology analyzing the findings of 24 studies focused on pet ownership and lower levels of social isolation or loneliness also found that only a part of the studies included had established a significant association between pet ownership, social isolation, and loneliness. More specifically, regarding loneliness the authors wrote that "studies that were conducted after the outbreak of COVID-19 mostly showed that pet ownership can contribute to lower levels of loneliness, but did not reveal an overall significant association until then."

An earlier review published in 2015 by the journal Anthrozoös evaluated quantitative studies of companion animals and human loneliness from five large electronic databases. It concluded that of the 21 studies that met their criteria, all but one study were "underpowered." In scientific lingo, a study is considered underpowered if it doesn't include a large enough sample size to provide a meaningful answer to the research question.

While more research is needed before we can scientifically say that your fur baby—or any other beloved companion of the animal variety—can help prevent or combat feelings of loneliness or social isolation, but that doesn't mean they won't. Research questions that rely heavily on perceived connections (i.e., what people think versus proven reality) can be extremely difficult to answer. The extent to which a pet can reduce loneliness is also very likely to be dependent, at least in part, on the closeness of the owner-pet bond.

Yet despite the remaining uncertainties, currently reputable, large health agencies like the NIH continue to support the idea that pet ownership can reduce loneliness, provide comfort, and enhance feelings of social support. According to the American Psychiatric Association, a leading authority on human mental health in the U.S., companion animals are also increasingly being used to augment mental health treatments and support mental well-being.

Even though the science isn't quite there yet, if you're one of the growing numbers of people struggling with loneliness or social isolation, it may be a good idea to consider adding an animal friend to your life. In case you find yourself ready to be a pet guardian, groups like The Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ask you to look into adopting a fur-ever friend, perhaps helping these companions stave off a little loneliness of their own.

Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Paris Close.

This story originally appeared on Pettable and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

Visit thestacker.com for similar lists and stories.


 

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