Loneliness and Social Isolation
Loneliness and social isolation are considered to be a threat to public health and are frequently discussed as being at epidemic proportions. They are considered to be potentially more threatening to public health than obesity and the corresponding health risk has been equated to smoking 15 cigarettes a day48. It is alarming that social isolation and loneliness predict mortality at levels comparable to well-documented health risks such as high blood pressure, smoking and obesity. The UK has appointed a Minister for Loneliness as a way of bringing attention to the concern and providing a position situated at a high government level to take the lead in forging change.
How can pets ameliorate loneliness?
According to Ainsworth49 there are four roles of an attachment figure and it has been argued that pets fulfill all four of them50. Pets are 1) enjoyable, 2) comforting, 3) missed when absent, and 4) sought in times of distress. People report turning to their pets for love and support51.
It stands to reason that people feel less lonely if they have someone to talk to and pets can fill that role. In addition to being readily available for a conversation, pets eliminate any need to be concerned about confidentiality, reprisals, judgements or meeting expectations52. Fifty percent of adults and 70% of children report confiding in their pets53. Talking to pets, compared to talking with people, is associated with lower cardiac responses54. Patients with language disorders improve verbalizations in the presence of a companion animal55,56. See the section on Autism Spectrum Disorder below for more relevant evidence.
Pets have long been considered social "icebreakers" or social lubricants, meaning that they create an atmosphere, or provide a topic of conversation, that is non-threatening and which seems to foster easy communication and conversation. People will "risk directly engaging"”" with unfamiliar people when there is a companion animal present57. Pets are the “great leveler”58 – seeming to break down social barriers or differences like; race, socio-economic status, religious preference, and even political affiliations. Social “icebreakers” can be of critical importance to individuals with disabilities who may feel isolated or different. When people with disabilities are accompanied by a service dog they experience: more social greetings from adults and children, more approaches by other people, and a greater willingness to go out in the evenings59.
We have an encouraging foundation of evidence indicating that animals can ameliorate loneliness. This evidence is strongest with regards to AAI, but the pet ownership results are provocative and demonstrate that this area should be fertile ground for more advanced study.
The relationship between pets and loneliness is one that recurs in multiple sections below.
Trauma – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
According to the American Psychiatric Association60 PTSD is one of the most common trauma-induced mental illnesses, affecting 20% of military veterans. There is an increasing focus on how pets, commonly dogs and horses, may help alleviate symptoms associated with trauma, specifically PTSD. A systematic review of this literature conducted in 2015 reported that across those studies it appears that animal interaction is associated with reduced PTSD symptoms and anxiety61. Along with reductions in PTSD symptoms, these studies frequently reported reductions in depression and anxiety, or improvements in social outcomes, sleep, or quality of life. It is important to keep in mind that not all studies reported all of these outcomes and the type of trauma varied substantially across the studies included. In a recent study, military veterans were randomly assigned to walk with a shelter dog or a person for four weekly 30-minute sessions. When they walked with the dog, those veterans with higher PTSD symptoms experienced the greatest relaxation (as measured by HRV) and reduction in PTSD symptoms62.