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


Gerontologist. 2020;60(3):428-438. 

In This Article

Theoretical Framing: Social Loss and Pet Ownership

The convoy model of social relations (Antonucci, Ajrouch, & Birditt, 2014) suggests that social relationship networks shrink with aging. That is, we tend to "prune" relationships as we get older, focusing on close friends and family (Antonucci et al., 2014). Concurrently, aging is associated with increased risk of experiencing a major social loss (i.e., loss of a spouse due to widowhood or divorce). The loss of any member of an older adult's social network can have implications for well-being; but a major social loss may result in losing a primary source of social and emotional support (Siv, Ove, Ulla, & Eystein, 2012). Although losing a spouse to widowhood or divorce probably differs significantly in terms of how individuals feel about the loss, both involve a change in everyday social engagement occurring in one's household, and changes to the social support network. If caregiving is involved prior to loss, individuals often tend to experience decreased interactions with other members of their social network as care work intensifies. This loss of contact might persist following the loss, resulting in greater risks for social isolation (Burton, Haley, & Small, 2006).

Social isolation, or the absence of or having too few meaningful social ties (de Jong Gierveld, van Tilburg, & Dykstra, 2016), is associated with a risk magnitude for mortality similar to smoking, and increased risk of needing long-term care services, in part because individuals who are socially isolated are more likely to become depressed and/or lonely (Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2014; Dickens, Richards, Greaves, & Campbell, 2011; House, 2001). In short, major social losses magnify existing risks related to psychological health that come with aging (Fried et al., 2015; Hawkley & Kocherginsky, 2018).

Despite these risks, some individuals recover relatively quickly from a major social loss and do not face significant psychological health consequences. Even though a major loss, by definition, involves the shrinking of social networks, individuals who maintain a sense of connectedness and social support are more likely to maintain well-being (Hawkley & Kocherginsky, 2018). CA may be particularly beneficial to middle-aged and older adults in this context. The protective effect of pets on health in later life has been observed in previous studies examining the effects of stressful events (Garrity et al., 1989; Siegel, 1990). CA may promote subjective evaluations of connectedness and support (Crossman, 2017; McNicholas et al., 2005), which may buffer the negative consequences of losing a loved one. As a result, examining the role of pets at the time of a major social loss may provide an ideal context for assessing the function of CA on psychological health in later life.