Helping to solve loneliness

by Robin Hewings

Companion animals can help us address deep-rooted social problems.

Loneliness is one of the major public health challenges facing the modern world. For most people, loneliness is an occasional experience - and it can be useful: an incentive to get out and make new connections, rather as feeling thirsty is an incentive to rehydrate. When loneliness becomes chronic, however - when we feel lonely for long periods of time - it can affect us deeply and have serious health consequences comparable to major risk factors such as being overweight or even smoking.

The pandemic, which brought a renewed awareness of the importance of social connections, increased the risk of loneliness in the UK, with more than one million people moving into the category of chronic loneliness most injurious to health. Loneliness is the feeling of a gap between the social relationships we have and those we'd like. But it's not a simple numbers game: we can be lonely in a crowd and perfectly happy by ourselves.

While our understanding of the impact of loneliness has been growing over the last decade, there's a lot more for us to learn about the best ways of tackling it. One line of inquiry has been whether our relationships with animals can help. For many people, the connection they have with their pets is one of the relationships they value most.

We still lack studies tracking people over long periods of time, but there is evidence that people who would like a pet to help them feel less lonely benefit when an animal does come into their life. This effect was heightened during COVID-19, when people with pets generally fared better than those without.

Researchers in Australia found that people living alone but with a dog or cat felt that the animal made lockdown easier and increased their sense of companionship. For those with dogs, there was an important physical connection with their animals; as one said, 'I have someone to cuddle'. Those with cats and dogs alike talked about having someone to speak to: 'She gives me a reason to talk out loud'. People with cats said the animals improved their mood, while those with dogs said their needing to be walked gave them a sense of purpose.

Appreciating the human-animal bond helps suggest how we might tackle loneliness in the future. People who imagine they will enjoy the companionship of an animal can feel more confident that this will be the case. We can start to build relationships with animals, as well as with humans, into our conversations about how to address loneliness. One of the most important parts of the government's loneliness strategy is a commitment to roll out social prescribing, according to which doctors recognise that the underlying cause of a GP visit may be social rather than medical. GPs report that loneliness increases their workload, with three-quarters saying they see between one and five people a day for whom loneliness is the underlying reason for the consultation.

A social prescribing service can explore these underlying causes, help patients develop a plan of action and support them to carry it out. The last part is vital because loneliness saps our self-confidence and makes us feel more threatened by social situations, creating a downward spiral that can be hard to escape. We cannot presume that people will always be able to bounce back on their own.

Social prescribing helped one bereaved older man who had lost the energy and confidence to walk his dog on the beach. The social prescribing service gave him support to get back and re-establish his social contacts with other dog walkers. Dogs are a tremendous reason and excuse for conversations with other people, including strangers, creating small moments of connection that make the world seem a more welcoming, safer place.

Pets are only for people who want them. But there should certainly be no unfair barriers to people having a companion animal. Given the difference that animals can make to people's sense of connection to nature, the world and other people, not being able to have a pet when you would like one is not a trivial inconvenience, but something that can have a real impact on well-being. MPs interested in this issue have identified blanket restrictions in private rental agreements as an area that needs reform.

The ways in which pets help reduce loneliness illustrate a broader truth. The best solutions to loneliness involve participation in things that are interesting and meaningful. We know that animals are loved for themselves, give themselves back to their humans and often additionally help to forge connections with other people. Once people break out of their loneliness and feel confident and connected again, they can spiral upwards.

Communities need a rich mix of ways of coming together, including spaces to be with animals. Unfortunately, the strongest examples of civil social life currently exist in wealthier areas. As we emerge from the pandemic, we need to ensure that our need for connection with the world around us is at the heart of how we come together and level up. Animals can remind us of the ways in which we are embedded in nature, and that this is, fundamentally, the meaning of our lives. We look forward to a time when no one is chronically lonely - and animals can help us get there.

Robin Hewings

Robin Hewings is programme director of the Campaign to End Loneliness. He leads a team driving action on loneliness through research, convening and influencing. Highlights include publishing the reports The psychology of loneliness, Promising approaches revisited: Effective action on loneliness in later life and Loneliness beyond COVID-19. He also helps advise the work of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Loneliness and Community Connection.