Why pets are important to the bereaved?
Molly Willis January 2017
The 2016 Pet Population report, commissioned by the Pet Food Manufacturer’s Association, revealed that there are currently 57 million pets living in 40% of UK households. While many of these households would attest to the joy that comes with pet ownership, the companionship of animals can also provide significant physical, emotional and psychological benefits to the lonely and bereaved.
It is scientifically recognised that humans have an instinct towards physical contact and touch. A lack of this, known as ‘touch starvation’ or ‘skin hunger’, can significantly lower the rate at which you produce oxytocin and make you more susceptible to depression. Further consequences include reported insomnia and higher blood pressure. Interacting with an animal fulfils our need for physical touch, thereby increasing our resistance to these issues.
Grief or loneliness can also lead to a reluctance to leave the house or care for oneself. Not only has playing with a cat or dog been shown to naturally elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, but the experience of caring for an animal may encourage you to better care for yourself, as well as provide a reason to go outside and potentially talk to new people. Additionally, the higher rates of exercise associated with pet ownership will release endorphins and elevate your mood, putting you in a better position to deal with the loss of a loved one.
Therefore, it is no accident that a study performed with the recently bereaved elderly revealed that widowed women who owned pets experience fewer symptoms of disease and reported lower medication use than those without pets.
Other proven health benefits of having a pet include:
- Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression
- Playing with a dog or a cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.
- Pet owners have lower triglyceride than those without.
- Inability to focus – your pet will give you something to concentrate on.
- Miss the physical closeness of loved one – dogs and cats fulfil the human need to touch
- The experience of caring for another living being may encourage you or remind you to care for yourself
- When you struggle to leave the house or get out of bed, your pet is an excuse to do so.