This will hardly be news to anyone who shares their life with a four-legged friend, but Australian researchers have found that owning a dog could help tackle loneliness. And that’s a big deal, since according to the Campaign to End Loneliness, a study has shown more than nine million people of all ages in the UK are either always or often lonely – that’s more than the population of London. Not just that, but loneliness has been linked to several health risks including dementia, heart disease and depression, and one study has even gone as as far as saying it’s as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Back to the Australian research, which has been published in the journal BMC Public Health. Following 71 Sydney residents during an eight-month period, the trial claims to be the first long-term Australian controlled study to investigate dog ownership and mental wellbeing in the community. Some of the participants were new dog owners, while others had dog-free households. But within three months of getting a dog, the dog owners said they were less lonely, with some also saying their mood had improved.
“Some previous research has shown that human-to-dog interactions can have benefits in settings like nursing homes using therapy dogs, however, there is very little research looking at the impact for everyday dog owners interacting with their dog at home,” says Lauren Powell, one of the study’s authors.
“While we can’t pinpoint exactly how dog ownership positively affected mood and loneliness in our participants, many people in the study reported that they got to know others in their neighbourhood because of their new dog.
“We also know that short-term interactions with dogs improve mood so it may be that the regular occurrence of these interactions taking place with dog ownership produced long-term improvements.”
The findings could be particularly significant for older people, say the researchers, as the risk of loneliness and isolation often gets higher as people get older. Indeed, an Age UK survey in 2016 found that half a million older people go at least five or six days without seeing or even speaking to another human being.
“If dogs can help people get out into their neighbourhoods more and to meet other people, this is a win-win,” says Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis from Sydney University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health, the study’s senior author.
As anyone who lives with a dog knows, there’s an instant bond between dog owners, and walking a dog is a great way to meet others with the same interest. But it’s not always possible to have a dog, depending on where you live and the conditions of your lease, for example. There are ways of enjoying the benefits, however – read Stressed? Get a pet (or borrow one) for some ideas.