Does pet ownership impact the relationship between living alone and depressive symptoms?

Research has shown that living alone positively correlates with the prevalence of depressive symptoms.

A new BMC Public Health study analyzed how living alone and pet ownership combined relate to depressive symptoms.

Study: The association between living alone and depressive symptoms and the role of pet ownership among Japanese workers. Image Credit: New Africa/Shutterstock.comStudy: The association between living alone and depressive symptoms and the role of pet ownership among Japanese workers. Image Credit: New Africa/Shutterstock.com

Background

Around 300 million adults globally suffer from depression, and the disease burden associated with depression is high among younger individuals.

Only one-third of patients achieve remission with the use of antidepressants. Therefore, policymakers aim to address this public health crisis and increase efforts, wherever possible, to prevent depression.

Living alone is a risk factor for depression. Prior research had demonstrated that the odds ratio for having depression was 1.44 times among those living alone compared to those living with others. More recent studies conducted in Korea and Finland have also corroborated these findings.

About the study

The current study contributes to the literature by additionally studying pet ownership's role among individuals living alone. Prior evidence on the role of pet ownership on mental health is mixed. Indeed, some studies have reported null results.

In societies where more individuals live alone (e.g., Japan), examining the association between living alone, pet ownership, and depressive symptoms is important.

The central hypothesis was that the positive association between living alone and depression was weakened among those living with pets.

A survey on health-related lifestyles was conducted as part of the Japan Epidemiology Collaboration on Occupational Health Study. 12,763 employees from five companies between 2018 and 2021 participated in the survey.

The 11-item Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (cut-off score≥9) was used to assess depressive symptoms.

To calculate the prevalence ratio and 95% confidence interval (CI), a Poisson regression model with a robust variance estimator was estimated.

Key findings

Among the Japanese workers, it was observed that living alone positively correlated with the prevalence of depressive symptoms. When pet ownership status was considered, it was noted that those living without a pet and those living with a pet had a higher prevalence of depressive symptoms.

However, a stronger association was found among those living alone with a pet than those living without one.

This finding is contradictory to other studies that have shown that pet ownership attenuates the association between living alone and depressive symptoms. Therefore, the data collected in this study did not support the central hypothesis.

There are many possible interpretations for this finding. First, despite the psychological benefits of pet ownership, pet ownership could also be associated with some forms of burden.

An online survey in the United States reported that most pet owners said that the cost of pet care is rising and is getting difficult to afford. Second, it could also be that pets walking around in the room or meowing during night-time leads to sleep deprivation.

In fact, one study showed that the odds ratio for not achieving seven hours of sleep per day was 1.18 times among cat owners compared to non-cat owners.

When living arrangement categories categorized the participants, it was observed that depression was higher among those who lived only with their birth family relative to those who lived with a spouse and children.

This finding aligned with a previous study that reported higher suicide rates among those living alone and those living only with parents.

In the present study, among those who lived with their birth family, a protective effect of pet ownership was not observed either.

Conclusions

In sum, the present study showed that living alone was associated with the prevalence of depressive symptoms, and this association was not attenuated among those who owned pets. More research is needed to examine how to protect individuals who live alone.

This study has a number of limitations, including the lack of diversity in the sample. The sample came from employees of large Japanese corporations and may not represent the Japanese working population.

A high share of participants was male, which could jeopardize generalizability. Employment status could also determine the time spent with pets; this aspect could not be studied here.

The study did not provide information on whether the participants had primary caretaking responsibilities and the type of pet. Previous studies have documented differences among individuals with primary caretaking responsibilities vs. those without.

Further, the cross-sectional nature of the study prevented the inference of a causal relationship of the correlation that has been documented. Finally, the scale used to assess depressive symptoms did not include clinical depression as a category.

Journal reference:
Dr. Priyom Bose

Written by

Dr. Priyom Bose

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.

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