Pets, loneliness, and well-being
Pets as companions? This can’t be a serious consideration in relation to the problem of loneliness? But it is. Research has shown that pets can reduce a sense of social isolation. The can also reduce depression. Anecdotally, we know the joy of bringing a pet into the family home, which can have a calming effect on everyone, especially the children.
Likewise, the use of pets in aged care homes has had an almost instantaneous positive effect. The elderly can suddenly recall childhood memories. This sense of connection has been shown to ease the effects of dementia. Strangely, elderly patients, who have been given chickens to care for, experienced an increased sense of connection and purpose.
Disability is a growing area, using pets therapeutically. For example, parents of children with autism report that their children feel close to pets because, unlike people, pets do not make judgmental assessments about their children. What’s more, stroking and hugging pets is a safe sensory connection.
In practical terms, the main difference between therapy and assistance dogs is their classification under legislation. Assistance, or service, dogs are considered a medical aid, specifically trained to assist a person with disabilities. They are given additional permissions and protections under the law. In contrast, a therapy dog is available on request to visit and provide support and comfort to individuals. Dogs, for example, have alerted others when someone experiences a seizure, even noticing this in the early stages of seizure onset.
Assistance dogs have been used to help veterans cope with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Having a companion, who is non-judgemental, has profound psychosocial assistance, helping to decrease cortisol and increase oxycodone. Some report that having this assistance has reduced the number of panic attacks. If they are ‘frozen’ in panic in a social situation, the dog is able to help them back to their car, because they are trained to pick up on anxiety and distress.
Ironically, loneliness is a pervasive experience in modern society. In other words, there are many lonely people. Most of us, moreover, experience a sense of disabling loneliness at some stage in our lives. In order to address loneliness, it is good to develop a repertoire of life-giving habits and meaningful-connections, which can include pets. So, what if we are stuck? Where do we begin? Counselling then can help us start the process of creating these new habits and connections.