For older adults
Older adults experience increasing health challenges combined with diminishing social networks, putting them at risk for social isolation, loneliness, and depression. Interventions are needed to ameliorate or eliminate these challenges to psychological health for older adults and there is mounting evidence supporting the benefit of companion animals for this purpose90.
Pets ease the burden of bereavement particularly for those with relatively few confidants available43,91. When a spouse dies, the surviving partner can experience depression and a deterioration of physical health. Pets provide a buffer against the potential negative health consequences of bereavement, and a strong attachment to a pet has been associated with significantly less depression43.
Recent research supports both these findings and the explanation for them92.
One study found that pet owners were twice as likely to have suffered from depression at some point in their lives than non-pet owners93. On the face of it, this seems like a negative finding, but the authors of the study suggest, and recent market research supports, the notion that people may “self-medicate” for depression by acquiring a pet. If this is the case, then we would expect to see a relationship between pet ownership and depression because pet owners suffering from depression may assume that acquiring a pet can help them manage their depressive symptoms.
In a rare randomized control trial where older adults were randomly assigned to either care for an animal (a cricket) or a control condition for 8 weeks94 the insect care group had significantly improved depression and cognition scores at the end of the 8 weeks relative to the control group. This finding is important because it uses the gold standard experimental research study to show that caring for a pet can improve both depression and cognition in older adults.
A number of other studies show that interacting with a companion animal decreases depression in older adults95.
Loneliness and Social Functioning
According to the AARP foundation, approximately one third of Americans older than 65, and half of those over 85, live alone. Loneliness is a major risk factor for depression, which accelerates decline and contributes to mortality. Individuals who report feeling lonely or lack social connections tend to suffer higher rates of infection, Type 2 diabetes, dementia, faster cognitive decline, poorer overall cognition, increased negativity and increased risk of heart disease and stroke. For these reasons, it is important to find solutions to help older adults build or maintain positive social functioning and prevent feelings of loneliness or social isolation that so frequently accompany the diminishing social networks and increased health challenges that accompany aging. Research in HAI has shown that companion animals have the potential to provide much needed social support and opportunities to increase social networks for older adults.
Pet attachment has been associated with reduced loneliness96 viewed as a coping resource for loneliness97 and mediates the relationship between loneliness and health98. Individuals over 60, living alone, reported that their pets attenuated their loneliness. Several studies have shown that higher levels of pet attachment have been linked to reduced loneliness in older adults, indicating that older adults who are more attached to their pets are likely to reap more of the benefits associated with pet ownership95.
There is solid evidence indicating that interacting with pets can alleviate loneliness for older adults who are either cognitively intact or impaired. A recent systematic review evaluated 32 such studies95. This research has shown that interacting with a companion animal has positive effects on loneliness, social behaviors and social interactions in older adults, but it is not clear which aspects of, or number and durations of, animal interactions are most effective.
Anxiety, Fear, Agitation, and Related Behaviors
A brief 12-minute session of interacting with a dog significantly reduced anxiety in patients diagnosed with advanced heart failure99. Other studies have shown that interacting with a dog reduced anxiety in Alzheimer’s patients100 in patients in long-term care facilities101 and in those who have behavioral problems associated with agitation102,103.
In a systematic review of the literature on animal-assisted interventions and dementia researchers report that AAI is associated with decreases in agitation and aggression and increases in social interactions and quality of life104.
Although the evidence seems to indicate that owning or interacting with a pet is likely to forestall advancing cognitive decline in older adults the evidence specifically focusing on cognition is limited. For example, in a small study (N = 7) comparing dementia patients to a control group, interacting with an animal showed improvements in Activities of Daily Living, Mini Mental State Exam, and salivary chromogranin A (CgA) as a measure of mental stress. As mentioned above, a rare randomized control trial where older adults were randomly assigned to either care for an animal (a cricket) or a control condition for 8 weeks the insect care group had significantly improved cognition scores at the end of the 8 weeks relative to the control group. Once again, this finding is important because it uses the gold standard experimental research study to show that caring for a pet can improve cognition in older adults.
A common theme in the HAI literature as it relates to mental health is that animal-assisted interventions (AAI) have promise as complementary or adjunct treatments for many mental health issues. Pet ownership is likely to be beneficial to the treatment of mental health issues, but a more elegant approach to research on the topic is required before we can state this with any certainty.