Dogs really can chase away loneliness

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Who's a good doggie? New dog owners benefit from cuddles, meeting other dog owners and more physical exercise. from www.shutterstock.com

Feeling lonely? A dog may help. Our research out today confirms what many dog owners already know: dogs are great companions that can help you to feel less lonely.

Cuddles and slobbery kisses, meeting other dog owners in the park and a general lift in mood all likely help.

But our study, published today in BMC Public Health, found dogs didn’t affect psychological distress, the type seen in depression and anxiety.

Read more: 1 in 3 young adults is lonely – and it affects their mental health

Why are we studying this?

Almost two in five Australian households own a dog. And although most dog owners will assure you, in no uncertain terms, their dog is a source of sheer happiness, scientific evidence is lacking.

Most previous studies have compared the mental well-being of dog owners to non-owners at a single point in time. The problem with these studies is they cannot tell if dogs actually make us happier, less lonely or less stressed. They also cannot tell us if dog owners are simply in a more positive state of mind in the first place.

So, in this study, we measured mental well-being at three points in time: before owning a dog, three months after owning a dog and eight months after owning a dog.

Read more: Man's stressed friend: how your mental health can affect your dog

What did we do?

Our study, known as the PAWS trial, involved 71 Sydney adults who were separated into three groups:

people who bought a dog within one month of starting the studypeople who were interested in getting a dog in the near future but agreed not to get one during the study, andpeople who had no interest in getting a dog.

People filled out surveys to measure their mood, loneliness and symptoms of psychological distress at the three different time-points. We then compared the mental well-being of the groups at the beginning of the study, to the mid-point and to the end-point.

Read more: Curious Kids: is it true dogs don't like to travel?

Here’s what we found

New dog owners felt less lonely after they got a dog compared to the other two groups. The effect happened quite quickly, within three months of acquiring a dog. There was no further decrease in loneliness between three months and eight months.

Aww. The joy of a new dog eased loneliness within the first few months. from www.shutterstock.com

We also found some evidence that dog owners had fewer negative emotions, such as nervousness or distress, within three months of getting a new dog but this finding was not as clear cut.

We found that symptoms of depression and anxiety were unchanged after acquiring a dog. Maybe the dog owners in our study already had low levels of psychological distress before they got a dog, so dog ownership didn’t lower these levels any further.

What does it all mean?

There are lots of possible reasons dogs can help to lessen feelings of loneliness. We know having a quick cuddle with a dog boosts people’s mood in the short-term. Maybe daily dog cuddles can also boost owners’ mood in the long-term which could help to lower feelings of loneliness.

Dog owners may also meet new people through their dog as people are more likely to talk strangers if they are accompanied by a dog. In our study, dog owners also said they had met new people in their neighbourhood because of their dog.

Read more: Is your dog happy? Ten common misconceptions about dog behaviour

So far, there have only been two similar studies to look at mental well-being in new dog owners, one of which was conducted almost 30 years ago.

Of these studies, one found dog owners had fewer symptoms of psychiatric disorders after they acquired a dog. The other study found no difference in loneliness after people brought a new dog home.

Dogs may also improve our physical health, by reducing blood pressure, improving cardiovascular health and increasing the amount of physical activity their owners perform. But, as is the case with mental well-being, the scientific evidence is still limited.

So, what happens next?

One of the things our study cannot determine is how dogs affect men’s mental well-being. By chance, all the new dog owners in our study were women. So, we don’t know whether dogs affect men’s mental well-being in a different way to women’s.

Read more: Whose best friend? How gender and stereotypes can shape our relationship with dogs

Our next step is to look at mental well-being in a much bigger group of new dog owners to confirm these findings. A bigger study could also provide more insight into the relationship between dog ownership and mental illness, such as depression and anxiety.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Lauren Powell is employed by the RSPCA NSW.

Emmanuel Stamatakis receives funding from the US-based Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI). The Physical and Affective Wellbeing Study of dog owners (PAWS) was funded through a donation by Ms Lynne Cattel.