Pet ownership increases the likelihood that owners interact with other individuals, an opportunity that is of particular interest to older adults who are often socially isolated. Having a dog is especially beneficial. Studies have shown that older adults with dogs exhibit less stress, but that stress is not associated with owning any other type of animal. In response to COVID-19 safety measures, the pandemic further increased their likelihood that older adults experience social isolation. Given the social opportunities afforded by owning dogs, researchers sought to examine whether dog walking impacted the relationship between the COVID-19 pandemic and loneliness among older adults.
In a study that that earned a Bronze 2022 Innovative Research on Aging Award, analysis was conducted by examining longitudinal data from a Florida community-based sample of adults, aged 60+ at two timepoints, September 2018 and October 2020. At both timepoints, respondents were asked to indicate the frequency for which they felt that lacking in companionship, left out, and isolated from others. At the later timepoint, respondents where additionally asked how much the COVID-19 outbreak impacted their sense of social connection and the frequency for which they walk their dog weekly.
The study found that those who reported being significantly impacted by COVID-19 exhibited higher levels of loneliness. However, those who walked their dog at least once a day did not become lonelier, despite the pandemic. The researchers acknowledge that individuals often acquire dogs to combat loneliness, highlighting that it’s difficult to infer the causal relationship between dog walking and loneliness. The study also did not measure emotional connection to pets, which might have indicated that those who are more emotionally close to their dogs tend to walk their dogs more. Consequently, the researchers argue that more research is needed to examine the benefits of dog walking on overall well-being.
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Carr, D., Friedmann, E., Gee, N. R., Gilchrist, C., Sachs-Ericsson, N., & Koodaly, L. (2021). Dog walking and the social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on loneliness in older adults. Animals, 11(7), 1852.