The Incredible Ability of Pets to Relieve Loneliness

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pets for loneliness

Story at-a-glance -

  • Having a pet may benefit your psychological health following the loss of a spouse due to divorce or death
  • Pets, which for the purposes of the study included dogs and cats, proved to be valuable companions, helping to buffer some of the psychological stress of spousal loss
  • People without a pet had significantly greater increases in depressive symptoms and feelings of loneliness than those with a pet
  • Those who had the support of a pet following the loss of a spouse were no lonelier than adults who had not lost a spouse
  • The ability of pets to relieve loneliness could be a key reason why they support better psychological health during an extremely stressful life phase

The loss of a spouse, either due to widowhood or divorce, is one of the most stressful events a person can encounter, one that often leads to depression and chronic stress. In one group of widows, researchers found that feelings of loneliness, sadness, depressed mood and appetite loss were heightened, compared to a control group, while feelings of happiness and life enjoyment were low.

The researchers also found, that bereavement primarily affected loneliness, and it was the feelings of loneliness that, in turn, activated the other depressive symptoms.1 It makes perfect sense, then, that a recent study also found having a pet may benefit your psychological health following the loss of a spouse, by decreasing loneliness.2

Pets Decrease Feelings of Loneliness After Spousal Loss

The study involved people aged 50 years and older who had lost a spouse due to death or divorce. Their depressive symptoms and feelings of loneliness were compared to a control group of people who were continuously married. Lead study author Dawn Carr, associate professor of sociology at Florida State University, explained in a news release:3

“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.”

Pets, which for the purposes of the study included dogs and cats, proved to be valuable companions, helping to buffer some of the psychological stress of the loss. While all of those who lost a spouse suffered from “psychological health consequences,” those without a pet had significantly greater increases in depressive symptoms and feelings of loneliness, compared to those with a pet.

Remarkably, people who had the support of a pet following the loss of a spouse were no lonelier than adults who had not lost a spouse. The ability of pets to relieve loneliness could be a key reason why they support better psychological health during this extremely stressful life phase. “That’s an important and impressive finding,” Carr noted, adding:4

“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 the negative consequences of loneliness after a loss.”

Why Pets Relieve Loneliness

Pets act as a friend to talk to and a warm companion to cuddle with. They also provide a sense of stability, routine and purpose. There’s a reason why animal-assisted therapy (AAT), such as bringing therapy dogs to interact with senior nursing home residents, is so popular — it’s very effective and has been shown to reduce residents’ perception of loneliness.5

In another study of adults aged 65 and over who did not have a partner, women who owned dogs reported being less socially isolated and less lonely than women without pets.6 Particularly during a stressful event like the loss of a spouse, having a pet nearby may help buffer some of the stress.

“You can talk to your dog. They’re not going to tell you you’re a bad person, they’re just going to love you. Or you can pet your cat, and it’s calming,” Carr said, adding that a pet also adds meaning to your life:7

“Oftentimes, the relationship we have with our spouse is our most intimate, where our sense of self is really embedded in that relationship … 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.”

The companionship that pets provide is so powerful that experts have suggested they should be allowed in assisted-living facilities, while other research found older pet owners were 36% less likely to report loneliness than non-pet owners.8 Living alone and not owning a pet were associated with the greatest risk of feeling lonely.

It’s not only seniors who can benefit from pet ownership. Rural adolescents who owned pets also had significantly lower loneliness scores than those who did not,9 showing that the companionship pets provide has no age limitations.

These findings likely come as no surprise for those who already share their homes with a pet and enjoy the unconditional love they provide. However, for those who are considering pet ownership, it’s comforting to know that by opening your home and your heart to a pet, you’ll gain a new friend who will support you and provide emotional support in both good times and bad.