Companion animals effect on loneliness
Peplau and Perlman (1982) introduced loneliness as an unpleasant experience which occurs when one sees difference between the existing desired levels of social contact he or she might have. Yet this experience is faced differently from person to person. For some this may occur when people feel lonely, when they lack significant others; as for others it may arise when they are part of a social group but lack communication with the other members.
Due to the fact that companion animals have shown to be very beneficial for ones psychological and physical well-being studies carried out, focused on the way(s) companion animals may affect loneliness.
Loneliness and companion animals: Research studies
An old key study (Zasloff and Kidd, 1994) investigated companion animal ownership among single adults. The sample consisted of women, all who were at least 21 years old, single and living alone. The researchers reported that the women living entirely alone without pets were lonelier than those who were living alone and owned a companion animal. In addition the findings support that companion animal ownership can help decrease loneliness, especially for women living alone, and also for those who lack human companionship.
Unlike Zasloff and Kidd, Goldmeier focused on investigating companion animal ownership and general health among elderly women, finding that companion animal ownership showed to reduce loneliness in older women living alone. Thus, he argued that “pets only attenuate the sense of loneliness that may be felt from a lack of human companionship” (pp.203)
Another key study in this area of research is that of Calvert (1989) which examined the human-animal interaction and loneliness among elderly who lived at a nursing home. The findings of this study showed that the residents who had higher levels of interaction with animals had less feelings of loneliness than those who had no interaction with animals.
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Animal assisted therapy’s effects on loneliness
It has been argued that companion animals may help reduce loneliness experienced by people at different times in their life. Moreover, animal assisted therapy (AAT) has been used to see whether it has an effect on loneliness among elderly living in care facility homes.
In 2002, Banks and Banks tested initial loneliness levels among older people who lived at a long term care facility. Participants where then divided in groups. There was no animal assisted therapy for the first group. In the second group therapy took place once a week and in the third group it took place three times per week. Six weeks later the participants’ levels of loneliness were tested again. Results indicated that animal assisted therapy reduced loneliness scores. Therefore the researchers had suggested that this type of therapy can have a positive benefit on alleviating loneliness in people who are residents of long term care facilities.
Although most research has found a beneficial effect of companion animals on loneliness, some studies have shown opposite results. For instance, a recent study which investigated this effect was that of Gilbey et al. (2006). Gilbey, McNicholas and Collis had made a claim proposing that if loneliness could be reduced by companion animals, then for people who were separated from companion animals’ loneliness would increase. This argument was therefore tested among a sample of students finding no evidence supporting it. Similar results were found a year later (Gilbey et al., 2007), where participants’ loneliness levels were examined while they were looking to get a companion animal as well as six months later.
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The different ways which animals help to reduce loneliness
Most research conducted to test animals’ effect on human health (well-being) found that companion animals show to reduce feelings of loneliness. One of the questions arising from this however is how companion animals are considered to help.
In studies carried out by Banks and Banks (2002), and Wisdom et al. (2009), it was found that a companion animal is capable to help a person socialize. This may be due to the fact that people with pets are approached more often and perceived as friendly and happy by other people (Wells and Perrine, 2001, pp.166); this may be why people who feel lonely benefit from companion animal ownership.
On the other hand, Gilbey et al. (2007) suggests that companion animals do not reduce loneliness but rather provide benefits that make people believe their not so lonely. For instance, owning a companion animal makes peoples’ life style change therefore leaving them with less time to think about whether they are lonely.
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Why do some studies find companion animals beneficial for human loneliness while others do not:
The reason, for companion animals being able to diminish loneliness maybe relevant to Siegel’s (1990) findings, that people feel animals have unconditional love and can understand when their owner is upset or happy. However, for some people companion animals may be the case, but for others it is not. Feelings of loneliness differ from person to person.
Companion animal owners may be less lonely than non-animal owners, but this does not indicate that companion animal ownership can help reduce loneliness. For example, a great number of studies are based on the effects of companion animals on elderly populations; mostly showing a beneficial effect. However it may be important to argue the reason for this before carrying out such studies. Older people may feel lonely if they are living entirely alone and their children moved away or they may feel lonely at a residents home if their close family members where absent. Wisdom et al. (2009) indicated that elderly, whose children moved away and currently lived alone, supported that having a pet made them feel needed again, and felt they had the ability to do things they considered impossible.
Researchers such as Gilbey et al. (2007) and Havener et al. (2001) suggest that research should be done among people with high levels of loneliness in order for companion animals’ effect to become more apparent.
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