Summit explores the animal solution to social isolation

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A group of public health, research, gerontology, and veterinary leaders gathered at the first Social Isolation, Loneliness, and Companion Animals Summit on May 7 in Washington, D.C., to discuss the role companion animals can play in curbing societal loneliness, which can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, according to research.

Mars Petcare and the Human Animal Bond Research Institute sponsored the event that showcased research on the benefits of the human-animal bond against social isolation and loneliness.

"Scientific research shows that pets have a positive impact on our health and wellbeing," said Steven Feldman, HABRI executive director, in a press release. "The insights from this research further highlight how the human-animal bond can play a role in helping to alleviate loneliness and social isolation."

Nearly 80% of pet owners say their pet makes them feel less lonely, according to market research conducted by Edelman Intelligence for HABRI and Mars Petcare. About 26% of pet owners stated they got a pet because they knew it was good for their mental health.

Summit participants
Human and animal health experts gather in Washington, D.C., for the inaugural Summit on Social Isolation and Companion Animals, hosted by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute and Mars Petcare. (Courtesy of Mars Petcare)

"We know pets improve our lives in many ways—including providing companionship and bringing people together," said Nancy Gee, PhD, human-animal interaction research manager at Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition, in the press release. "It's our hope that one day evidence-based methods can become common practice in schools, hospitals, and other therapy settings. Driven by science, we hope to enable and encourage experts who work with people facing loneliness and social isolation to consider facilitating animal interaction as a way to help address the issue."

Sessions at the summit included topics such as the following:

  • Social isolation, loneliness, and public health.
  • Why is social isolation a particular problem for older adults?
  • Examples and elements of effective programs with animals.
  • Why is social isolation a particular problem for people with mental health challenges?

Panelists at the summit worked to develop best practices, discuss research, and raise awareness around social isolation because the issue may continue to have an impact on more people.

Currently, social isolation affects more than 8 million adults over the age of 50, according to the AARP. But that number is expected to keep growing as 10,000 Americans turn 65 each day.

Some of the panelists at the event included Rena Crumplen, the global vice president of research and development at Mars Petcare; Steven Feldman, executive director at HABRI; Dr. Molly McAllister, then vice president of veterinary science and now chief veterinary officer at Banfield Pet Hospital; and Pamela Mars, a fourth-generation member of the Mars family.

Related JAVMA content:

Study: Service dogs associated with less-intense PTSD symptoms (April 1, 2018)

Finding calm amid the chaos (Nov. 15, 2013)

Doctor prescribes pets to help elderly stay healthy and happy (Sept. 15, 2002)