A new study in the open-access journal Animals examines the links between pet ownership, loneliness, and wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study also provides evidence that many people perceive psychological and emotional benefits from their relationship with their pet, which may translate into a greater bond and potentially improved mental well-being and loneliness.
Led by the University of the West of Scotland, with support from the Waltham Petcare Science Institute this large-scale study used an embedded mixed-methods design, with a qualitative component embedded within the larger quantitative study. While cross-sectional data showed no association between pet guardianship and loneliness or well-being, qualitative findings demonstrated that pet guardians believed such effects exist. “Despite being physically isolated from friends, family or colleagues, having a pet meant never truly being alone,” noted Heather Clements, Ph.D. student on the study from the University of the West of Scotland.
In the online survey of 1,199 participants, those who kept companion animals overwhelmingly rated them as having had a positive effect on their well-being during the pandemic. Of those surveyed, ~85% of dog owners and ~75% of cat owners believed their pets had an extremely or moderately positive effect, while fewer dog owners (~10%) and cat owners (~20%) believed their pet had a slightly positive effect or no effect at all. Fish owners, however, were more evenly split across these four categories (extremely positive, moderately positive, slightly positive, and no effect at all) and for all animal types, only a small minority of participants rated their companion animals as having had any degree of negative effect on their well-being.
Companion animals were also reported to have benefited their guardians by facilitating interpersonal connections. Even during the tightest restrictions, leaving the house was permitted for reasons related to animal welfare, such as to walk dogs or attend to horses. This often led to brief, socially distanced interactions that guardians said they appreciated during periods of isolation. Correspondingly, the quantitative results indicated that walking dogs for less time than average each day was associated with higher loneliness; indicating that possibly those who spent less time walking their dogs had fewer opportunities for these brief social encounters.
“Companion animals not only helped to take their guardians’ minds off negative thoughts associated with the pandemic, but also provided a much-needed source of purpose,” added Clements. Many participants indicated their companion animals provided a source of positive distraction. As participants recognized their responsibility to their pets, they also continued to adhere to daily routines involving their pets (e.g., walks, feeding times, etc.). This was beneficial as it added structure to their day and allowed guardians to experience something resembling normal life. Among participants who kept ornamental fishes, watching home aquaria was frequently cited as a beneficial activity and a welcome distraction; however, they were generally perceived as having a less positive effect than cats and dogs, possibly because they cannot provide comfort through physical touch.
While many participants indicated their companion animal provided a source of positive distraction during the pandemic, the duration of the study assessments was limited to a two-week period. Further longer-term confirmatory studies are needed to provide insight into the longevity of the positive effects of companion animals and to assess how transient these effects may be. For example, a pet guardian may have experienced relief from negative mental states while actively watching or interacting with their companion animal, but it is unclear as to how long this effect was retained once the interaction concluded.
Human-animal interaction (HAI) is a complex science and new studies often raise as many questions as they answer, and it is only through continued scientific exploration will we keep learning more. If we want to broaden our understanding of the specific elements of HAI that contribute to the wellbeing of humans and animals alike, we must continue to further research the science that underpins the human-animal bond. “Identifying the specific aspects of keeping companion animals that were beneficial during the pandemic will allow researchers to develop and test more theories regarding the impact of the human-animal bond for people and animals alike,” said Darren Logan, Ph.D., Head of Research at the Waltham Petcare Science institute. “As we have learned over the past several decades of study, the human-animal bond is nuanced and deserves continued rigorous scientific research to better understand when and how it influences people’s mental and physical health, while also ensuring the welfare of the animals.”