At Mars Petcare, our mission is to create a better world for pets, and as part of that work we conduct research into the relationships between pets and their owners. For example, in May we brought together leaders in public health, research, psychology, gerontology, and veterinary medicine to advance scientific research, best practices, and practical solutions to facilitate the role of companion pets and human-animal interaction (HAI) in supporting the public health crisis of social isolation and chronic loneliness in today’s society. Ahead of World Mental Health Day, we spoke to Dr. Angela Hughes, our Veterinary Genetics Research Manager about mental health awareness and the role animals can play in improving human mental health and preventing mental illness.
In your opinion what are the key mental health benefits of pet ownership?
Here’s just another example of how dogs protect their owners. There are honestly so many mental health benefits of pet ownership it is difficult to name them all. For children, pets can help them have a greater sense of self-esteem, feel less lonely, and help enhance their social skills. Kids often think of their pets as their best friend. For adults, pets can help people connect with others in their community. Dog owners are 5 times more likely to know their neighbors than non-dog owners since they need to get out to walk the dog and the dog can act as a social “icebreaker” to engage others and provide an easy conversation starter. Pets can even help in times of significant stress – like the loss of a spouse or divorce – to ease the devastating feelings of loneliness that follow these events.
In this time of epidemic loneliness, pets may be one solution to this problem. According to recent US market research run by HABRI in collaboration with Mars Petcare, 80% of pet owners say their pet makes them feel less lonely. Nearly 9 in 10 (89%) people who got a pet for loneliness feel their pet has helped them feel less lonely. A quarter of pet owners interviewed stated they got a pet to improve their mental health, while respondents aged over 55 years old doing so more frequently (55%).
How is Mars contributing to a better world for people and pets to live healthy lives together?
Pets clearly hold a special place in our families and we want them to enjoy a long happy and healthy life and by virtue of having them in our lives, we tend to live a happier and healthier life (see above!). Mars is committed to our purpose: A Better World For Pets, and we are working to achieve this purpose through the use of our science and data. Over the past four decades, we have produced thousands of scientific studies and innovations in the animal health and welfare space to improve our pets’ lives. These studies have improved pet nutrition, healthcare, and welfare. We are currently conducting some of the largest pet healthcare studies ever performed including the Pet Insights Project that is linking activity levels to behavioral and medical data to enable earlier diagnoses and interventions. We will be launching the largest Pet Census combining owner survey data with the pet’s individual genetic data via the WISDOM PANEL dog DNA test later this year. Additionally, we are exploring the world of machine learning and artificial intelligence to create better diagnostics including RenalTech™ the world’s first AI-developed algorithm to predict the pending onset of kidney disease in cats. We also have great initiatives around pets being welcome in our cities and communities, Better Cities For Pets, as that is better for them and us and the Banfield Foundation’s campaign to prevent domestic violence against people and their pets.
What would you like to see in a better world for pets?
I would like to see humanity rise to the occasion to love our pets and ourselves the way that our pets love us. Pets have a way of living in the moment and seeing the joy that we can most definitely learn from. I would also like to see world where pets are provided with good food, veterinary care, exercise, and husbandry (e.g. living in the right environment for their species). One where all pets are wanted and welcomed and that we have a way of sustainably and responsibly breeding pets so that we can continue to live with and love them as we do.
Is there a statistic, learning or takeaway from the Social Isolation and Companion Animals Summit earlier this year that truly surprised you?
Probably the issue that struck me the most was the effects of loneliness and social isolation on our mental and physical health and wellness, so much so that it is being recognized by leading authorities including Dr. Vivek Murthy, 19th Surgeon General of the United States, who spoke at the Summit, as a public health crisis in this country. He even suggested that chronic loneliness has the potential to be a core defining issue of our time. On the flip side, it was so inspiring to hear about the improvements observed in the health outcomes of people after interacting with animals be it kids in schools, seniors in assisted living facilities, or adults living on their own. Pets have the potential to be one of the solutions to this loneliness crisis.
Are there specific attributes pets have to help improve the mental health and wellness of humans?
People turn to their pets for love and support. We can talk to and confide in our pets – we trust them and do not need to worry about confidentiality, reprisals, judgments or meeting expectations. Measures of stress, including cortisol and heart rate variability, in humans show significant improvement when people spend time with pets and/or walk dogs. They can also give us purpose in our lives and a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Overall, the wealth that pets bring to our lives cannot be overestimated.