Mental Health - Loneliness
Mental Health: Loneliness
This year, Mental Health Awareness week is highlighting loneliness and the impact it can have on our health. One in four of us humans feels lonely some or all of the time and this can negatively impact on our mental as well as physical wellbeing.
Loneliness was of a particular concern during COVID because of forced isolation. Many mental health organisations advocate the positive benefit pet ownership can have on our mental health, and it has been widely reported there was a surge in pet ownership during the pandemic, helping many to combat feelings of lock-down loneliness and isolation. This surge included an increase in small animal ownership too, with many experiencing the joy (and hard work!) that comes with being responsible for a small furry.
Now that COVID is being managed, and there is a return to (albeit a slightly changed) level of normality, some pets are now finding their days very different to those they experienced during the height of lock-down. They are no longer with their human companions 24/7, and sometimes they can find themselves alone for 12 or more hours as their owners return to work, often with longer hours trying to cope with an increasing financial burden as the world tries to recover economically too. And when their owners do return, they may be less able to interact due to tiredness following a hard day at work; welfare groups are experiencing an increase in reports of behavioural issues and separation anxiety in pets, as well as requests for rescue space to relinquish their pets as a result.
So how do we help the little ones in our care, and ensure they don’t suffer from loneliness? How would we know? And what practical steps can we take to help them today?
The first steps are to accept there could be an issue, and recognise possible signs of behavioural issues that may be a symptom of loneliness.
Symptoms can be wide and varied, and not immediately relatable to a mental health issue; whilst lethargy and inappetence can be a sign of pain or digestive issue, it can also be a sign of depression or loneliness. We do, however, strongly recommend the symptoms be treated as a physical ailment first with the appropriate veterinarian treatment, with mental health issues then being addressed only when the vet has given a clean bill of physical health. As many owners know, speed is paramount with many small furry physical health issues.
Symptoms can be destructive or aggressive. Defending territory with aggression is not uncommon for the lonely pet, nor is chewing, scratching or destroying anything around that teeth or claws can get to.
Urinating away from the normal litter routine can also be a sign of either physical or mental health issues; it can indicate a bladder infection, for example, or perhaps a boredom or feeling of isolation, with the mindset of ”if this is all I’ve got, I’d better really make it mine!”.
Any deviation from the accepted normal behaviour is an indication of something, be it a physical or mental issue.
The simplest answer to combat loneliness is companionship - most small furries love companionship, and on the face of it, it’s an easy thing to sort - assuming you have space, time and money for additional little mouths, of course!!
Although this is an excellent solution for many, this is not a quick fix; it’s not always simple, and it will take time to find the correct companion. Firstly by species - a rabbit needs another rabbit companion, for example, and then by temperament. Rabbits don’t worry about the size or shape of their companions, but they do have their preferences when it comes to character and temperament, and will love other bunny companions more or less, depending on their character. Just like us humans do!
If you’re considering a companion for your little one, we recommend discussing with your local vet and rescue first - your vet will help with neutering and vaccination advice, and your local rescue should be able to help with bonding (aka dating!). Just like us humans, rabbits need to get to know each other before making the long-term commitment of moving in together!
Finally, check with your local vet or rescue, as not all species are open to companionship. Some, like Syrian hamsters, for example, are so territorial, they really do ‘prefer to be alone’. In this situation, the best approach to ensure mental wellbeing is via environmental enrichment.
Where your little ones live is as important as how they live (i.e as a solo or with a companion). The environment needs to comply with the ‘5 Freedoms’ of animal welfare, where animals should have enough space to express normal behaviour. In addition to this space, they should have places to explore, hide and rest in, as well as things to do. This will vary by species, of course, and depend largely on what your little ones enjoy doing; some rabbits live to chew, others look at a willow toy and think ‘meh’, but give them a pile of hay and they’ll be busy for hours!
It’s important to remember that in nearly all cases, it’s a great idea to vary the environment and it’s content as often as practical - think ‘Changing Rooms’ of the small furry world - a shed, for example, could be a multi-zoned fun park one week, or a maze of tunnels the next. A collection of toys can be divided into groups which are then rotated every few days. Treats (in moderation!) can be hidden in tunnels or toys to be found, and hay can house a multitude of herbs and flowery goodness! This way, there’s always a new challenge to conquer, a new toy to play with, new or area to explore or new pile of stuff to forage.
This keeps your little ones stimulated, active, engaged and busy. All excellent for their mental wellbeing.
It’s worth noting there are a few exceptions to this ‘Changing Rooms’ approach; it’s best to keep layout the same for those with sight issues - remapping an area or constantly bumping into something that wasn’t there yesterday is a bit of a pain (!) - and also those who are elderly or with mobility issues.
Don’t forget that, in nearly all cases, our small furries love nothing better than foraging around in tasty hay! A large percent of a rabbits’ day should be spent foraging, and this is environmental enrichment, Mother Nature style - and exactly what rabbits are designed to do!
Through Their Eyes
Take some time to look at the world through your little one’s eyes, and see their day as they see it. This will help you see if any changes or enrichment activities can be carried out to enhance the environment, or if taking the plunge and starting on the companionship journey is really the best solution; either way, your little ones will love you for it!
Can We Help?
And if you’re encountering some behavioural challenges with your little ones, do get in touch as we may be able to offer some practical advice!
... and for help with mental health issues for us humans, check out https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk