By Dr. Becker
Despite the fact that you can hop on a plane and fly across the world in a matter of hours, and chat with people online virtually 24/7, the world is an increasingly lonely place for many people.
Social isolation is real and linked to serious health conditions from heart disease and cognitive impairment to depression and even premature death. If you frequently feel lonely, isolated or wish you had a few more friends to rely on, here’s a simple solution: get a pet.
You should not, of course, get a pet only for the sake of meeting new friends. But if you have the time, resources and desire to add a furry family member to your home, and you happen to be in a lonely place, there could not be a better time to head over to your local animal shelter and here’s why.
Pets Are Conduits for Getting to Know People
You know that awkward feeling when you first meet somebody new and you’re not quite sure what to say? That rarely happens when you have a pet in tow because pets are an automatic ice-breaker, especially among other pet owners and animal lovers.
If you’re a pet owner, you probably already know this to be true, but researchers from the University of Western Australia‘s School of Population Health decided to investigate it formally.
It’s well known that pets provide companionship and support to their owners, but the researchers noted that few studies have looked into pets’ role as a catalyst for friendship formation.
The study involved a telephone survey that asked residents of four cities (one in Australia and three in the U.S.) about pet ownership and friendships in their neighborhood. Pet owners were significantly more likely to get to know people in their neighborhood than non-pet owners.1
Dogs appeared to be uniquely beneficial. People who owned dogs were significantly more likely to regard people whom they met through their pet as a friend than were owners of other types of pets.
Dog owners were also three times more likely to receive at least one type of social support from people met through their pet.
Even Deep Relationships Can be Formed Via Your Pet
The friendships went far beyond small talk. Researcher Lisa Wood told Discovery News, “Having a pet can actually lead to more meaningful relationships between people.”2
Overall, 40 percent of pet owners said they received one or more of the following types of social support from people they met through their pet:
- Emotional (defined as receiving empathy, affection or encouragement)
- Informational (receiving useful information)
- Appraisal (receiving advice or an opinion)
- Instrumental (receiving practical help or a favor)
An Antidote to Isolation
One of the easiest ways to meet people via your pet is by taking your dog for a walk, but it should be noted that dogs are not the only pets that can act as social lubricators. According to the study:3
“This conversational ice-breaker role is not limited to dogs, with other experimental studies finding small animals such as turtles and rabbits also precipitating conversation between strangers in a park setting.”
The presence of an animal perhaps any animal acts as a “neutral and safe conversation starter.” By helping you get to know others in your community, pets provide an antidote to isolation, even if the relationships formed consist of a simple wave hello.
Often, however, the relationship progresses, beginning with small talk over your pet, then knowing the person by face or name, and, ultimately, to considering the person an acquaintance and then friend. As one San Diego woman polled for the study put it:4
“There is a path in our neighborhood that people walk along with their dogs. When you walk that path at the same time every day you run into the same people and start conversations and make friends.”
An Australian woman also explained how a mischievous cat has helped her make new friends:5
“The cat steals people’s socks from their houses, and then I return them. It's a good way to get to know people. They all think it is hilarious.”
Pets even have the ability to bring people from different walks of life together. “The great thing about pets is they are a really great leveler,” Wood added.6
Social Activities With Your Pet
If you’re interested in meeting new people, all you need to do is take your dog for a walk. You’ll naturally have a reason to start a conversation with other dog owners. If you don’t have a dog (or a cat with a penchant for socks), you can get involved in social activities designed for pet lovers.
For instance, many cities have meet-up groups for people with certain dog or cat breeds or other pets like birds or snakes. You could also sign up for a dog-friendly race or run in your area or visit a dog park, and there’s always volunteering at an animal shelter, wildlife rescue or other animal-oriented facility.
Remember, too, that even if your pet doesn’t facilitate a new friendship for you, he or she will still provide you with unconditional love and devotion, and that in itself is a remedy for loneliness. In fact, singles, as well as those who are widowed, divorced or separated, can benefit from adopting pets because they provide love and a sense of family.