By Bruce Y. Lee
They aren’t great at texting you when they are running late. You shouldn’t expect to get any car rides from them. They may poop when you are discussing something serious with them. No, they aren’t a replacement for human contact. Nevertheless, could pets play a role in dealing with what has been an increasing problem among adults: loneliness?
If you feel alone and lonely, you are paradoxically not alone. As I have written before, a CIGNA survey of over 20,000 American adults found that 46% felt alone either sometimes or always, 47% felt left out, 27% rarely or never felt as though there are people who really understand them, 43% felt that their relationships are not meaningful, and 43% felt isolated from others. According to the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration web site, “two in five Americans report that they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel lonely or socially isolated.” Based on the U.S. Census, over a quarter of adults in the U.S. population now live by themselves.
Sure, loneliness may help you compose the next great pop song. But for most people, the risk is a range of possibly serious health consequences. Vivek Murthy, MD MBA, the 19th U.S. Surgeon General, serving from 2014 to 2017, has emphasized that “loneliness is linked to both mental and physical health concerns. When I have visited communities, people will frequently tell me stories about dealing with different health challenges like addiction, chronic illnesses, obesity, anxiety, and depression. What many times can come out, after further digging, are their struggles with loneliness.” While having health struggles certainly can lead to loneliness, the question is how much is loneliness leading to health struggles such as anxiety, depression, obesity, and addiction. If our society is trying to combat major public heath problems like the obesity epidemic and the opioid crisis without really addressing the loneliness problem, are we barking up the wrong tree?
Speaking of barking, how might pets help with this loneliness problem, which Murthy has called a loneliness epidemic? Last month, the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) and Mars Petcare convened a Summit on Social Isolation and Companion Animals to address this particular question. The Summit included a discussion with Murthy as well as talks by Layla Esposito, PhD, a Program Director at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and Nancy Gee, PhD, a Professor of Psychology at the State University of New York at Fredonia, summarizing what scientific studies have said about the health benefits of human-animal interactions.
It would make sense for pets to be able to help with loneliness. After all, unless they violate their curfews and stay out all night partying, they can provide steady companionship. They can also exhibit a range of human-like behaviors. For example, a dog can show you gratitude and affection by leaping into your arms and embracing you, although most humans wouldn’t lick your face to show gratitude. And a cat could be secretly plotting your demise, as I have described previously for Forbes.
Moreover, companion animals can prompt you to engage in healthy activities that may decrease your feelings of social isolation such as going outdoors and getting exercise. After all, you have to take a dog for a walk periodically, otherwise you may have some nasty surprise gifts waiting for you at home. Companion animals can facilitate interactions with other humans as well. This was what a former medical school classmate of mine had in mind when he got a dog to help him meet women.
Studies have shown that pet ownership may be associated with lower degrees of loneliness. For example, published in BMC Geriatrics, an analysis of data from 5,210 older adults who were part of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, found that those who owned pets were less likely to report being lonely. It also found that people who did not report themselves to be lonely were more likely to own pets. A study published in the journal Aging and Mental Health analyzed survey data from a sample of 830 primary care patients who were 60 years and older. The analysis revealed that pet owners were 36% less likely than non-pet owners to report loneliness. These studies don’t necessarily prove that pets alone can alleviate loneliness as they show associations not causation. Someone who is more likely to get an animal companion could also be more likely to maintain other aspects of his or her life that could alleviate loneliness.
Murthy did caution that “companion animals do not replace human interaction. But they can help when someone is struggling to establish meaningful human relationships.” Indeed, don’t be inclined to shut off human contact because you think dogs, cats or other animals are more agreeable and don’t seem to talk back to you (at least in a way that you can understand). You still need someone to challenge you more, to question you if you are going to do something stupid, and to bring other points of view so that you can grow. Companion animals can’t do these in the same way humans can. For example, you may not be able to hear it when your goldfish says, “screw you,” while swimming away.
Plus, like any given human being, a companion animal can’t be all things for you. Just like one person can’t replace an entire social network, a companion animal will be limited in what he or she can do for you. For example, a companion animal can’t participate in all the activities that you may want to do. A turtle may make a terrible jogging partner. Cats are awful at karaoke. Instead, you need a social system in place that can provide different things at different times. That’s why fixing the loneliness problem will require fixing the systems that are leading to social isolation.
Pets alone cannot solve the loneliness problem in American that’s increasingly being called a loneliness epidemic, but they can help. Of course, having a companion animal comes with responsibility and is not for everyone. You shouldn’t just get a dog because you are feeling lonely. You have to be ready to take care of your friend. Moreover, not all animals are the same. A companion slug is not the same as a rabbit, hamster, bird, dog, or cat. Furthermore, not all animals within the same species are the same. There is tremendous diversity in their personalities even though all you may hear is “woof,” “meow,” “tweet,” or whatever it is that rabbits say besides “whats’ up doc?” Check to see if the animal matches your personality. Oh, and make sure that your cat is not really a Flerken.