Does Owning A Pet Really Combat Loneliness?
Much has been said about the benefits of owning a pet, especially about how being in a pet’s company can help someone combat loneliness. During the “new normal” of the COVID-19 pandemic, where working from home became the norm rather than the exception, popular media shone the spotlight on how pets improved social interaction when at home, especially for pet parents who lived by themselves.
But what are the science and psychology behind this? Will owning a pet really help you confront loneliness in healthy ways? Are there medical or evidence-based studies that prove that pets can positively affect humans’ mental health, especially when they experience feelings of loneliness and isolation? Let’s find out by reading the arguments below:
Pets Combat Loneliness by Making You Feel Loved
Any pet owner will tell you that sharing their lives with a companion animal has significantly improved their mental and emotional well-being. Pets, especially dogs and cats, have evolved to become more acutely attuned to human behavior and emotions. For example, cats can immediately tell when their owner is upset and may try to comfort them by rubbing their bodies on their fur parents. Dogs, on the other hand, are more expressive and may jump on their owners while licking their faces.
These are obvious examples of how a pet can make us feel valued—and we may try to reciprocate our affection by treating them as our babies, dressing them up in cute dog collars, taking them out in pet strollers, or even cradling them when in bed. When you and your pet become accustomed to showing each other trust and affection, life won’t feel half as lonely as it used to.
Pets Combat Loneliness by Decreasing Your Levels of Cortisol
Interacting with a beloved pet—whether that’s a dog, cat, rabbit, or even your favorite iguana—can decrease your levels of cortisol or the stress hormone. This will have a cumulative effect on your overall wellness.
Cortisol triggers your fight-or-flight response. While essential to your survival, the hormone can cause organ damage if it remains in your system for a long time. Doctors say that you need to keep cortisol levels low (or even absent) for the most part so that your body functions normally.
Interestingly, scientists have found that higher levels of cortisol are also related to increased feelings of loneliness. Aside from raising stress levels, cortisol can affect how lonely you feel. The higher the levels of cortisol in one’s body, the more intense their feelings of loneliness are.
Cuddling with your pet is a natural way to reduce cortisol levels while also prompting the production of dopamine and serotonin, the feel-good hormones. This is why you feel a burst of happiness when you interact with your fur babies: your brain is literally producing more pleasant sensations.
Pets Combat Loneliness by Boosting Cognitive Development
Several studies show that owning a pet, especially at a younger age, can shape the way your brain forms, develops, and adapts to certain situations. Children who grow up with pets are observed to have higher levels of empathy, better multitasking abilities than their peers, and a higher likelihood of following instructions or a time schedule. The simple answer is that owning a pet influences brain function, with pet owners using more portions of their brains to better communicate, understand, and interact with their furry friends.
This also plays a role in how humans combat loneliness, as researchers have found that the brains of lonely people are wired differently from those of individuals who claim to have well-adjusted social lives. This brain divergence is still being studied by scientists, but researchers say that lonely people have a more strongly wired “default network,” the part of the brain focused on reminiscing or recalling experiences from the past.
Thankfully, this strong default network can be reverted naturally. The brain can repair itself, as long as it has constant positive reinforcement. This is where your pets come into play. Pets can positively affect brain function and shape the way neurons interact with each other. Though the concept is still in preliminary research, scientists believe that having a companion animal may affect the direct network associated with loneliness. This implies that owning and caring for a pet can decrease loneliness at any age, as it compels pet owners to experience the “here and now” with their beloved pets.
Pets Combat Loneliness by Keeping You Fit and Giving You Opportunities to Socialize
Lastly, pets can compel their owners to be more mobile and more sociable as a result. This will hold especially true for you if you own a dog. Your pooch needs regular exercise, which means that you need to walk them daily. Not only will this routine have a positive effect on your physical health, but it will also give you the opportunity to meet other pet owners as well.
If your feelings of loneliness come from being cooped up at home for days on end, having the “excuse” to go out and possibly meet new people who share the same passions as you (such as having a pet) can do a lot to alleviate your loneliness.
All in all, owning a pet offers myriad benefits to pet owners, not least of which is a reduced feeling of loneliness. Whether you live alone or are sharing your house with other humans, sharing the company of a pet can make your life all the sweeter, healthier, and happier.