Recent research released this week shows that 40 percent of people support a government push to increase interaction with pets in the name of mental health and overall wellbeing. If that sounds like a silly suggestion — getting the United States government involved in influencing interaction between people and house pets — consider that the research presented at the first Summit on Social Isolation and Companion Animals by Mars Petcare and the Human Animal Bond Research Institute revealed loneliness is as dangerous to physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The same research equates those consequences to a health epidemic parallel to obesity.
"When we think about loneliness, we need attachment figures and pets meet that need," says Nancy Gee, human-animal interaction research manager at Mars' Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition. ”You don’t have to worry about confidentiality or judgment. It just is what it is."
"The greatest gift of animals is they remind us we can love and be loved unconditionally,” says former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who spoke at the conference as well. In fact, Murthy’s work since leaving office has been heavily focused on the subject of loneliness, with animal interaction and pet ownership receiving a lot of his attention. According to Murthy, however, there’s still no final distinction as to whether or not pet ownership leads to healthier people or healthier people are simply more likely to own pets. It’s often a “chicken or the egg” discussion within the mental health research community and a reminder that correlation does not necessarily equal causation.
Nonetheless, many of the findings presented at the conference were interesting and should make anybody consider that owning a pet is as much a decision made for greater health as it is a simple effort to bring joy into their life:
•More than half (54%) of respondents say their pet helps them connect with other people. And 51% said their pets make them "feel less shy.”
•About one in four pet owners said they got a pet because they know it is good for mental health. More than half of people 55 and over got their pet for that reason.
•Nearly three-quarters (73%) of those surveyed believe nursing homes and assisted-living facilities have a degree of responsibility to foster pet interaction.
For these reasons, Murthy argues we need to make it easier for people to interact with pets. In other words, Murthy suggests we create ways to make animals more accessible to people as a way to combat loneliness and any mental health concerns that may arise from it. "What’s important to think about is how to make interaction easier,” which doesn’t necessarily mean more people need to own pets, rather there just needs to be more interaction with them.
So how exactly do local government make strides to encourage and enable greater interaction with pets?
For one, Mars Petcare presented tips to consumers for convincing their local government officials to make cities and towns more pet-friendly. The “Better Cities for Pets” program has built everything from an assessment program for cities, helping people determine if their hometown is properly equipped for being pet-friendly, to outlining the barriers that keep some places from being more pet-friendly. They even offer resources for organizations to apply for grants through the United States Conference of Mayors, which teamed with Mars Petcare in 2018 to provide grants for free pet food donations across the United States to be used at local shelters and care facilities.
The program presents that there are four pillars of a pet-friendly city, divided between shelters, homes and ownership, parks, and business. The most pet-friendly cities, they argue, are the ones that have fewer animals in shelters and more pets in loving homes — a byproduct of effective shelters at work in the community. In private households, they point out that open housing policies that allow pet ownership are essential, which is logical given that many apartment and rental communities will often charge fees for dogs, cats, or at least pets of a specific size, presenting a simple barrier to even owning a pet for many. Green space and community amenities are also structural circumstances that determine pet-friendliness, as well as local businesses having a role in contributing to policies and programs that make pets welcome.
Fort Worth, Texas, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Tennessee (not Ohio), St. Petersburg, Florida, Richmond, Virginia, and Franklin, Tennessee are among the cities making active efforts within the Better Cities for Pets program.
“For children, the research suggests that growing up with a pet can bring social and emotional benefits,” writes Sandra McCune, Ph.D., Scientific Leader, Human Animal Interaction at WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition. A systematic research review in 2016 found that kids with pets tend to have greater self-esteem, less loneliness, and enhanced social skills. In fact, children often think of pets as their best friend. In a research survey by the University of Cambridge, children got more satisfaction from their relationships with their pets, and with less conflict, than they did with their siblings. The study’s lead researcher speculated that since pets can’t talk back, they give children a safe, non-judgmental companion. At school, studies suggest that pets can help children learn by keeping them interested and motivating good behaviors.”
For busy adults, she presents that pets even strengthen social ties within communities, as reported by surveys conducted in the United States and Australia. "And let’s not forget the significant health benefits of dog walking,” she adds. “Researchers have found that people who walk their dog get at least 30 minutes of physical activity on more days per week than non-dog walkers. They also feel safer in their neighborhood. Finally, service and therapy dogs play a vital role in the lives of millions of people.”
And she also points out that the elderly benefit from pet ownership and interaction in their own ways as well. “There is also significant potential for pets to help fight loneliness. In the U.K., studies suggest half a million older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone.