Dealing with loneliness – one pet at a time Print E-mail
News - Rubrieke
Wednesday, 20 May 2020 20:29
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Dr Liesel van der Merwe is a small animal medicine specialist. Send her your questions: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Dr Liesel van der Merwe

During the lockdown period I had to still work, being essential staff – four days on duty, long hours and then four days off duty. Now, I am not a very sociable person, yet I looked forward to my days back at work and just the normal chit chat between colleagues.

I felt quite isolated at home, not being able to just quickly pop in and visit someone and even though I was enjoying the extra time in the garden, I wanted to share it with someone – have a friend or my sisters or parents over for tea or breakfast.

This made me think of older people or those who are housebound and just how isolated and lonely they must feel. As a society we really should make more of an effort and not just put our parents into care facilities and rely on others who are paid to look after them, or visit our parents only when we have time. 

We are so busy rushing around doing ‘stuff’ that we sometimes forget the important things in life. I have heard the same from so many of my friends here in South Africa and the United Kingdom – that even though the financial stress of lockdown is ever-present, they have enjoyed the extra time with their children and family.

Since we have been allowed to exercise, I see many families walking with their dogs until 9 am. My dogs are barking so much I actually miss lockdown. I never saw so many people walking their dogs before lockdown, even on the weekend. This is good healthy family time away from the TV, where we can talk easily to each other. Habits I hope we all keep after lockdown.

We sometimes put off the more important things in our life because of the constant static of rushing around. This lockdown has hopefully shown many of us that this rushing around doing stuff is not essential to our lives and may even be detrimental to our happiness.

Additionally I loved being with my animals during this time. Our routines changed and when I was anxious or stressed I could sit with them and they calmed me down. Their absolute love, with no demands, is just amazing. Once again I felt sadness for those people who were not allowed to have pets, or older people who often feel they don’t want a pet as they may die before the pet dies.

It has been proven time and again in research that loneliness and social isolation can induce negative health effects. Owning a pet can make a real difference in human mental health.

A report released by the Mars Company in 2020 again shows us the importance of social interaction in mental health and presents the results of a 2 000-person survey of both pet owners and non-pet owners throughout the United States.

The results are as follows: 80% of pet owners say their pet makes them feel less lonely; 54% of pet owners say their pet helps them connect with other people; 85% of all respondents believe that interaction with companion animals can help combat loneliness; and 76% of all respondents agree that interacting with animals can alleviate social isolation.

On top of this, many other medical studies have shown that having a pet will result in a drop in blood pressure and also decrease the level of stress hormones in the blood. So, the benefits of interacting with pets are not only psychological, but physical as well.

Although, having said this, when my dog pees in the house or digs in the garden, my blood pressure soars! But, even with all the effort that goes with them, I could not imagine not having them around me. (I have six dogs and three cats, so picking up dog faeces is a major undertaking – food goes in, faeces come out.) The benefits to my wellbeing are still just too great; my pets make me calm and happy and relaxed. 

However, not all people want a pet or are able to care for a pet full time. In these cases interaction with a therapy animal could provide the same benefits. This kind of animal-assisted intervention (AAI) would be especially applicable in old age homes, hospices and other types of care homes.

As individuals I hope this lockdown has taught us that we actually do need human interaction and that maybe we can think more about people who have no choice and live a type of ‘lockdown’ every day, week, month and year of their lives.

There are many organisations out there which can advise regarding animal assistance programs.

Approach your nearest care facility if you have a well-behaved dog. Have your dog trained further. Let us not just move onwards from this lockdown and forget how isolated we felt – even with our family and pets around us. Let’s start giving of our time to those less fortunate. We are always enriched by such an experience.

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