By Sandra McCune, PhD, Scientific Leader, Human Animal Interaction at WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition
The holiday season is a time when we often think about loneliness and health. If we’re lucky, we enjoy our own good fortune and try to spread it to others. We might offer a friendly word to a neighbor who lives alone, or give a donation to help someone in need.
But the fact is, people struggle with loneliness and health issues all year long. While there’s obviously no simple or single cure for everyone, there is a balm that could benefit many, and it’s as close as the nearest animal shelter.
Here’s why a life with a pet is my holiday wish for everyone who can manage the responsibilities that come with it…
Pets offer companionship and love
Loneliness has become an epidemic in our modern world. Everyone seems to be talking about it, and its impact is devastating.
- The BBC’s Loneliness Experiment found that a third of people surveyed often or very often feel lonely.
- A U.S. study found that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling lonely.
- Research suggests that social isolation affects life expectancy as much as smoking, and more than obesity.
- Studies show lonely people are more likely to suffer from dementia, heart disease and depression.
However, there are promising stories about the impact of pets. My colleagues at Mars Petcare UK conducted a consumer survey earlier this year and found that:
- 82% of pet owners said they felt less lonely once they had a pet.
- Over half said getting a pet had given them a new sense of purpose.
- 4 in 5 said their feelings of isolation faded within a month of getting a pet.
- 85% said their pet makes their home a happier place to be.
These findings were submitted as evidence to the U.K.’s new Minister of Loneliness as the government recently formulated its first loneliness strategy. I hope other countries will likewise consider pets as part of the potential solution to this growing global issue.
Pets help us live healthier lives
Beyond our emotional well-being, life with a pet can offer benefits for our physical health, too. Did you know pet owners are more likely to get recommended amounts of exercise? Or that they tend to visit doctors less often and spend less money on medication?
Earlier this year, I wrote a post about how pets make life better at every age. It seems every month since then, more dialogue has continued about the power of pets. In just the last few weeks:
- Researcher Megan Mueller wrote about how pets help military families thrive.
- My colleague Nancy Gee wrote about pets and seniors, and some new activities that I talk about below as well.
- Research from the U.K. suggested older people with pets fell asleep more easily at night than those without.
- Mars Petcare President Poul Weihrauch discussed the human-animal bond and social isolation.
Last month, I attended Royal Canin’s 50th anniversary event in Paris, which looked at how companion animals make life better for people. From the role of pets in human health to understanding the perspective of dogs and cats – it was a great day of learning from many brilliant experts. You can watch a playback of the presentations here.
One of the important points emphasized in Paris was the mutuality of our relationships with pets. The benefits we receive from them appear to be linked to the quality of the relationship we share – how we relate to our pets, how they relate to us, how attached we are to each other.
That’s why any conversation about pets making life better for people must include the important duty we have to our pets. If you’re not sure what I mean by that, please check out the Happy Pet Handbook from the BETTER CITIES FOR PETS™ program and the WALTHAM Pocket Book of Responsible Pet Ownership, which cover many responsible pet ownership topics.
Pets inspire and comfort us as we age
Last year, in partnership with The Gerontological Society of America, we looked at ways that life with a pet can be part of healthy, active aging. Together, we supported this infographic by Caring People Inc. It highlights many ways that sharing our lives with pets provide physical, social and emotional benefits. These include:
- Offering opportunities to nurture and feel needed.
- Providing a structure and routine for daily life.
- Giving and receiving affection.
- Reducing loneliness and feelings of isolation.
This month, we’ve taken the next step, publishing “The Role of Pets in Human Healthy Active Aging” with The Gerontological Society of America. This new booklet takes a detailed look at the current research on how relationships with pets may provide avenues to successful aging.
To share just a few examples, studies have shown that:
- Pet ownership makes a significant difference in the survival rate for heart attacks. 94% of the heart patients with pets survived serious heart attacks for at least a year, compared to 72% without pets.
- For older adults with existing hypertension, the presence of a dog has been associated with lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure during normal day-to-day activities.
- Pet owners over 65 are more likely to maintain the activities of daily living, such as climbing stairs, preparing meals and bathing independently than non-pet owners.
- Older adult dog owners engage in more walking and physical activity than non-owners and are more likely to achieve recommended levels of physical activity.
- People who share their homes with pets have healthier physiologic responses to stress, including less cardiovascular reactivity to, and faster recovery from, mild stressors.
There’s more research needed, particularly when it comes to the potential for pets to reduce feelings of loneliness. But there’s no question that people believe their pets relieve social isolation, and that alone is a good basis for more study.
And there are more opportunities…
Through our public-private partnership with the National Institutes of Health, research on human-animal interaction at the WALTHAM™ Centre for Pet Nutrition continues to build our understanding of the power of pets.
Plus, in partnership with HABRI, a consortium will bring together stakeholders to develop research and practice on the roles companion animals play in social isolation and loneliness.
Parallel to this, movements are underway to make it easier to enjoy the benefits of pets. In the U.K., the PEDIGREE® Dog Dates™ program is bringing together lonely older adults with dogs and owners who are keen to walk with them.
The BETTER CITIES FOR PETS™ program in the United States, Europe and Australia is working to break down barriers for pet ownership so more people can experience life with a pet. And, cities are beginning to recognize their role in making this happen.
A better life for pets and people
There is certainly more work to be done. But momentum is building to confirm what all of us with pets already know: that dogs and cats are wonderful connectors and they enrich our lives.
So, this holiday season, when you think about what you wish for the people you love, think about health, happiness AND pets. I believe their lives will be the better for it.