We all know there are many benefits of having a pet at home. From promoting mental health to encouraging physical well-being, owning a dog or cat can improve your life in many ways.
One of the ways pets help us is by being there for us when we cope with difficult times and emotions, especially when we go through the loss of someone we love.
In fact, new research shows pets can ease the loneliness and depression we feel following the loss of a spouse.
What Does The Research Say?
In a recent study published by The Gerontologist in September, also known as Health Aging Month, researchers found that companionship of a pet, especially after the loss of a spouse or loved one, can help reduce feelings of depression and loneliness in older adults.
The Gerontological Society of America and the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition funded this study. It examined depression symptoms and loneliness among people aged 50 and older who lost a spouse through death or divorce.
Dawn Carr, the lead author of the study and Florida State University associate professor of Sociology stated, “Increasingly, there’s evidence that our social support networks are really beneficial for maintaining our mental health following stressful events, despite the devastation we experience in later life when we experience major social losses. I was interested in understanding alternatives to human networks for buffering the psychological consequences of spousal loss.”
Researchers compared individuals who experienced the loss of a spouse, whether through death or divorce, to those who stayed married. Then they explored whether the effects of spousal loss differed for those who had a pet at the time of the death or divorce.
The research team discovered that all the subjects who lost their spouse experienced higher levels of depression. But the people who didn’t have a dog experienced significant increases in depression symptoms and higher loneliness than those who had pets.
Those who did have pets, however, were no lonelier than older adults who didn’t go through such a death or divorce.
“That’s an important and impressive finding,” Carr said. “Experiencing some depression after a loss is normal, but we usually are able to adjust over time to these losses. Persistent loneliness, on the other hand, is associated with greater incidents of mortality and faster onset of disability, which means it’s especially bad for your health. Our findings suggest that pets could help individuals avoid negative consequences of loneliness after a loss.”
Dogs Can Help In More Ways Than One
The research team noted that additional studies should follow up to explain why having pets helps maintain mental health. But Carr suggested part of it may relate to whether you feel like you matter to someone.
The findings have potential for more studies and could affect social policies. For example, it may be beneficial to include companion animals in the treatment of people residing in senior-living facilities.
“Oftentimes, the relationship we have with our spouse is our most intimate, where our sense of self is really embedded in that relationship,” Carr stated. “So, losing that sense of purpose and meaning in our lives that comes from that relationship can be really devastating. A pet might help offset some of those feelings. It makes sense to think, ‘Well at least this pet still needs me. I can take care of it. I can love it and it appreciates me.’ That ability to give back and give love is really pretty powerful.”
What do you think of this study about dogs helping those who lost their spouse? Has a dog helped you through a hard time? Let us know in the comments below!