It has long been known that there are both physical and emotional benefits of owning a pet. Various studies have been conducted into the ways that pets can improve your physical health and help those who are suffering from mental health issues. A recent study has even found that there is a link between whether a person owns a pet and how well they cope with their bereavement following the death of a spouse. UPI reports that the research looked at how people coped following the loss of a spouse, either through death or divorce, both of which are some of the most stressful experiences a person can go through.
They were particularly interested in whether owning a cat or dog made a difference in how a person coped with losing their spouse. There were 147 older adults included in the study, which was conducted by a team from Florida State University. Leading the study was Dawn Carr, a professor of sociology at the university. She found the results surprising. They discovered those who owned a dog or a cat coped better during this period of their lives. They have determined that this is because a pet can ease depression and loneliness. Not only are these issues that impact on a person’s mental health, but they are also risk factors for developing a range of physical health problems and can lead to premature death.
The study took place over a four-year period and involved researchers comparing the mental health of those who remained married to those who got divorced or their spouse died. There was a particular focus on whether having a dog or cat had an impact on the mental health of those in the study. According to their findings, everyone in the study who had become divorced or widowed did suffer a decline in their mental health. The findings also showed that having a pet made a difference. The team was able to put a figure to these results as they used a scoring system relating to the symptoms of depression. Using this scoring system, those who were divorced or widowed but did not have a pet scored an average of 2.6 relating to depression symptoms. On the other hand, those who had suffered such a loss but did have a pet experienced an average of only 1.2 symptoms.
This study is not alone in proving that pet ownership can impact on mental health. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, there are proven benefits of pet ownership in relation to stress, anxiety, and depression. Their statistics show that as many as 74 percent of pet owners have reported improvements to their mental health relating to pet ownership. One possible reason for this is that pets can reduce loneliness. Many people also find it comforting to stroke their pet at times when they are experiencing feelings of greater stress, anxiety, and depression. While the findings from other studies have been significant, Carr notes that many of the studies have not accounted for the different reasons why people have become pet owners. This is why the results of studies have been so mixed, with some showing the benefits of pet ownership and others showing a disadvantage.
She uses the example of people who get a pet because their health is declining. If a study looked at those people compared to people who do not own pets, a correlation might show that pet ownership contributes to a decline in health. However, this would simply be that the cohort used were already suffering from declining health. Carr’s research differed because it used baseline characteristics of both those who do own pets and those who don’t. The team o researchers then compared the two groups and found that having a pet could reduce the impact of losing a spouse. The data on people aged over 50 was used to collate the report, with the average age being 65. Those involved in the study had answered questionnaires for the Health and Retirement Study conducted by the University of Michigan. The participants were then divided into four groups for comparison; no loss/ pet, loss/ pet, loss, no pet, and no loss/ no pet.
Carr is not alone in thinking that the impact of pet ownership is far more complicated than it initially appears. Someone who agrees with this line of thinking is the chair of the American Geriatrics Society’s public education committee, Dr. Alice Pomidor. Although Pomidor was not directly involved in this study, she highlighted how other factors can sometimes indicate that pets are bad for an older person’s health. For example, owning a pet can cause stress due to the financial strain of caring for an animal. It can also increase the risk of falls in the elderly as they may trip over their pet at home. Pomidor also looks at the other side of the argument, pointing out that pet ownership can increase exercise, which then improves physical health. She also agreed that pets can make great companions for older people and reduce the risk of them becoming lonely. She believes that there are benefits for older people owning dogs and says that this has already been proven by the use of therapy dogs in assisted living facilities and hospices.
The American Psychological Association says that pets are not the only way to deal with grief. They suggest that those suffering from a bereavement need to accept their feelings and talk about the loss of a loved one. Other suggestions including taking care of yourself, reaching out to others going through the same experience, and celebrating the life of your loved one. They also highlight the importance of seeking professional help for those who are finding it difficult to cope with their bereavement and to move forward with their life.