Psychological Health Benefits of Companion Animals Following a Social Loss

Dawn C. Carr, PhD; Miles G. Taylor, PhD; Nancy R. Gee, PhD; Natalie Sachs-Ericsson, PhD

Disclosures

Gerontologist. 2020;60(3):428-438. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

Background and Objectives: In later life, the loss of a spouse due to divorce or widowhood is common and can lead to elevated depressive symptoms and loneliness. Research suggests that companion animal (CA) may be beneficial for psychological health, but limited research has explored whether CA can buffer negative consequences of social losses.

Research Design and Methods: This study uses data drawn from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to examine changes in depressive symptoms and loneliness in relation to a social loss among those with/without a CA. We used inverse-probability weighted regression to adjust for selection factors and isolate effects of CA ownership on changes in psychological health.

Results: Regardless of CA ownership, spousal loss was associated with psychological health consequences. Facing a social loss without a CA was related to statistically greater increases in depressive symptoms relative to those with a pet (2.580 vs. 1.207 symptoms, respectively). Similarly, experiencing a loss was associated with significantly greater increases in loneliness, with statistically greater increases in loneliness among those without a CA (p < .01). However, those with a CA did not experience greater increases in loneliness than those who did not experience a loss.

Discussion and Implications: In later life, CA ownership may buffer against the detrimental consequences of major social losses on psychological health. Future research on the therapeutic effects of CA ownership, as well as pet therapy, during other major life stage transitions is needed to help isolate potential mechanisms driving the benefits of human–animal interactions.

Introduction

Companion animal (CA) ownership has been linked to better health and well-being among community-dwelling middle-aged and older adults (Gee & Mueller, 2019; Gee, Mueller, & Curl, 2017; Mishra & Schroeder, 2014), including psychological functioning (Siegel, Angulo, Detels, Wesch, & Mullen, 1999). Scholars hypothesize a number of ways pets have the potential to benefit psychological health. They may support or facilitate social connectedness, provide a greater sense of purpose, increase physical activity (e.g., dog walking) and social interactions with others (Wood et al., 2015), or even offer a direct source of social support (Crossman, 2017; McNicholas et al., 2005). However, some studies also demonstrate null or even negative effects of pet ownership on health and well-being (Cherniack & Cherniack, 2014; Parker et al., 2010; Parslow, Jorm, Christensen, Rodgers, & Jacomb, 2005). For example, some studies have, respectively, found that pet owners have lower (e.g., Garrity, Stallones, Marx, & Johnson, 1989), similar (Branson, Boss, Cron, & Kang, 2016), and higher (Mueller, Gee, & Bures, 2018; Parslow et al., 2005) levels of depressive symptoms compared with nonowners.

These kinds of discrepancies have led some researchers to conclude that there is insufficient evidence to determine whether pets have a positive effect on the lives of middle-aged and older adults, and methodological challenges are to blame for many of the inconsistencies (Friedmann & Gee, 2018; Gee et al., 2017; Herzog, 2011). Most studies are based on relatively homogenous, relatively small samples of middle-aged and older adults, with data often collected at a single point in time, preventing explorations of the benefits of pets over time or in particular contexts. These kinds of limitations make it difficult to disentangle the effects of CA on health, specifically whether those who have pets are different from those who do not have pets (e.g., selection) or whether obtaining a pet causes a change in health. Without accounting for the role of selection, it is not possible to isolate the potential benefits of pet ownership and learn for whom and under what circumstances pets provide benefits (Carr, Taylor, Gee, & Sachs-Ericsson, 2018).

Scholars emphasize the challenges of isolating causal effects using observational data due to problems related to potential bidirectional relationships related to pet ownership and health (Friedmann & Gee, 2018; Gee & Mueller, 2019). The present study uses two strategies. One involves examining how middle-aged and older adults with a pet respond when faced with a specific but common stressful life event compared with someone without a pet (e.g., context). Focusing on the time before and after a challenging event speaks more strongly to the potential benefits of pet ownership for health compared with existing observed associations from observational, cross-sectional studies where no challenge is present. The second strategy we use is adjusting for selection effects, accounting for the ways in which CA owners and nonowners are different. Using longitudinal data drawn from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), the present study uses these strategies to help isolate the effect of CA ownership on middle-aged and older adults' psychological health (i.e., depressive symptoms and loneliness) in association with a major social loss (i.e., the loss of a spouse through divorce and widowhood).

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