Pets Can Help People Cope With Depression After the Death of a Spouse

Time to visit the ASPCA.

By Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.
March 11, 2020

The month leading up to my mother’s death was the most difficult period of my life. Between making end-of-life decisions and trying to navigate the complicated finances of dying (it’s more expensive than you think), it was a time of high stress, on top of my usual depression and anxiety. Looking back, there was one bright spot in this otherwise dark time: my sister’s dog — a Weimaraner named Lefty. Not only did she bring comfort to my mother in hospice, she did the same for the rest of my family. Whether she was licking my face when I was crying, cuddling up close to me, or making us laugh at her constant search for treats, she was a constant source of support, and I can’t imagine going through that process without her. 

Because my sister lives in Cincinnati and I live in New York City, I don’t see her — or Lefty — as often as I’d like, but getting to spend time with both of them over the holidays was the difference between being a functioning person with depression, and one who didn’t get out of bed. As it turns out, new research from Florida State University (FSU) reflects my experience.

Though the study, which was published in the journal The Gerontologist, focused on how pets can help people cope with depression and loneliness after the death of a spouse, the researcher’s findings echoed my own experience after losing my mother. 

“Increasingly, there’s evidence that our social support networks are really beneficial for maintaining our mental health following stressful events, despite the devastation we experience in later life when we experience major social losses,” Dawn Carr, Ph.D., lead author and FSU associate professor of sociology, said in a statement. “I was interested in understanding alternatives to human networks for buffering the psychological consequences of spousal loss.”

The researchers examined data from people over the age of 50 who lost a spouse, either through death or divorce, and compared it with data from people in the same age group who remained married. They found that all the people who lost a spouse had higher levels of depression, but those with a pet saw significant decreases in depressive symptoms and less loneliness than those without furry friends. Perhaps most surprisingly, those with pets who lost a spouse reported that they were no lonelier than older adults who were still married.

“That’s an important and impressive finding,” Carr said. “Experiencing some depression after a loss is normal, but we usually are able to adjust over time to these losses. Persistent loneliness, on the other hand, is associated with greater incidence of mortality and faster onset of disability, which means it’s especially bad for your health. Our findings suggest that pets could help individuals avoid the negative consequences of loneliness after a loss.”

So if you’ve experienced a loss and are on the fence about whether to adopt that dog or cat, this may be the nudge that you need.

About the writer:

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for print and online publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneCNNFodor’sLifehackerReader’s Digest and Playboy.

Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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