Loneliness, Pets, and the Role of Vets
From the Field shares insights from Banfield Pet Hospital veterinary team members. Drawing from the nationwide practice’s extensive research, as well as findings from its electronic veterinary medical records database and more than 8 million annual pet visits, this column is intended to explore topics and spark conversations relevant to veterinary practices that ultimately help create a better world for pets.
We know pets can help fight loneliness and social isolation, but what is the role of veterinarians? Emotional wellbeing has become a top-of-mind concept in the veterinary profession in recent years. We know our own profession has challenges. At the end of the day, many of us are extremely grateful to go home to our reasons for entering the profession—our pets. Their love, their devotion, and their strong foothold in the present moment can help ground us.
This role that pets play in our lives is of benefit to many beyond the veterinary profession. For certain groups of people, this role can have huge benefits in conquering daily health challenges. We have grown used to seeing dogs work as companions and assistants for people with physical disabilities, but we are increasingly seeing evidence that pets can play an important role in mental and emotional health challenges as well.
The Mars Petcare and Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI)–sponsored summit on Social Isolation and Companion Animals in May 2019 brought experts in a variety of fields together to discuss the role animals play in mitigating and preventing social isolation—and what needs to be done to further support the work in this important area.
Among other highlights, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy, spoke passionately about loneliness and social isolation as a public health epidemic, as well as the potential impacts on quality and quantity of human life. This powerful message brought urgency to the summit: social isolation has negative consequences for individuals and society, and pets can truly help alleviate these. So, how can we amplify efforts to measurably drive change and improve lives? I was compelled to look inside myself and my profession to ask, “What role can and do veterinarians play in this effort?”
VETERINARIANS’ ROLE IN THE HUMAN-ANIMAL BOND
Veterinarians have been fostering the human-animal bond since the advent of our profession. We are advocates for all animals, and that advocacy plays a fundamental role in building a healthy and strong bond between humans and the animals with which they interact, be it a personal pet, a service animal, or a communal animal such as the resident cat in a nursing home.
Through our daily efforts to educate owners and the general public about the animals they love, we nurture and promote this bond. By simply helping a pet lead a healthy life, counseling an owner about behavior challenges, or identifying and advising on pet care needs, we help foster a relationship that has the potential to reduce human loneliness and its negative side effects.
VETERINARIANS AND COMPANION ANIMALS
Members of the veterinary profession can play a critical role in addressing social isolation with the help of companion animals. Some veterinarians serve as advisors to individuals and families regarding the best choice of pet. That advice may come through formal or informal settings but arguably sets the human-animal relationship up for the best chance of success.
We all know that the choice goes far beyond cat or dog. Everything from allergies to exercise needs, pet care costs to human and animal life stage and life span, are factors that can come into the discussion. The composition, pace, preferences and past pet experience of a household make an enormous difference in what kind of pet will be happy in any given setting. Advice on the “ideal” pet may include species, size, breed, disposition, and even gender. These important considerations can be challenging information to deliver to the family that has their heart set on a popular breed or “a dog like Lassie.”
As we often experience in practice, important considerations are commonly overlooked by people in the excitement of adopting a pet. Factors that too often can be the cause of a breakdown in the human-animal relationship include difficulty house training, behavior around children, and health considerations that require levels of care beyond what was expected. Ultimately, it is more difficult to address loneliness or social isolation if the human-animal bond is not healthy and strong.
VETERINARIANS AND SERVICE ANIMALS
In addition to advising on personal adoptions, veterinarians are instrumental in helping professionals select appropriate therapy and service animals. Our first-hand experience and insight enable these experts to find a good match for their specific setting. Not all dogs, cats, or horses will be happy encountering unfamiliar hands and faces on a regular basis, while others seem to thrive with new visitors.
Assistance selecting the right animal is the first essential step but certainly not the last. Ultimately, we are advocates for pets. This includes advising the therapist and trainer how to recognize the needs of the therapy pet. Even the most gregarious Labradors have a limit to how many youthful snuggles they want.
The wellbeing of companion animals is the heart and soul of our work. We are fortunate that in doing this work we are also helping address social isolation of the humans on the other end of the leash.