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Beacon Senior News

Lonely or depressed? Spend time with a pet

Aug 23, 2021 10:39AM ● By Anna Stout
Happy brown and white dog with one blue eye and one brown eye, looking up with head between knees

The next time you restock your multivitamins, schedule a walk with a friend, draw a warm bath or contemplate other ways to improve your health and wellness, don’t forget to also set aside time with a pet. Even just a short period of interaction with a companion animal can have tremendous health benefits—mental, emotional and even physical—and improve your overall quality of life.

The human-animal bond is an incredible thing. Simply spending time with a familiar pet can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and relieve muscle tension. Pet ownership also keeps owners more active (particularly true of dog owners), which brings physical and cardiovascular benefits. This translates to better health and can lead to longer lives.

The companionship of a pet is also an antidote to one of society’s most crippling ailments: loneliness. Loneliness increases a person’s risk for depression, feelings of social isolation and, in extreme cases, suicide. 

Older adults are particularly susceptible to loneliness as their social and family networks change over time. Fortunately, research shows that people over the age of 60 who own a pet were four times less likely to be diagnosed as clinically depressed than non-pet owners of the same age. Pets also provide more opportunities for social interactions with others, serving as an “ice-breaker” for conversation.

Loneliness creeps in during times of crisis, transition, and for those who have a hard time bonding with others. The pandemic certainly qualifies, as well as losing a spouse or close friend, retirement, transitioning into different housing, or facing illness. In these situations, spending time with a companion pet means unconditional, nonjudgmental love resulting in increased feelings of connection and stability.

For those who can’t own a pet (due to housing restrictions, etc.), many of these benefits can still be experienced by simply interacting with animals on a regular basis. Human-animal interactions elevate “feel-good” brain chemicals in much the same way as participating in physical, social, artistic or musical activities. This is great news because in communities like ours pets are everywhere.

Local animal shelters are purveyors of mental and physical health. When adoption is not an option, volunteering at a shelter means having access to countless furry therapists and exercise partners. Rather than paying for a gym membership, consider walking dogs a couple of times a week or learning how to lead cats in interactive play. The relationship is mutually beneficial—shelter pets are enriched by the increased socialization, learn better manners, and often become more “adoptable” thanks to time spent with volunteers.

This is an excellent time to focus on making commitments to yourself for better post-pandemic health. As you think about ways to emerge stronger than before, try incorporating a pet into your plans. Pets are great listeners, gardening assistants, social ambassadors during walks, exercise routine buddies, cuddlers, and most of all, companions. 

Best of all, you can get one without a prescription. 

Anna Stout is CEO of Roice-Hurst Humane Society in Grand Junction and Delta. Learn more at www.rhhumanesociety.org