Good news for pet owners, and not just dog people and cat lovers.
Having a pet or companion animal – whether it be a furry friend or farm animal – seems to help people’s mental health cope with the stresses caused by pandemic life and loneliness during lockdown.
According to a study from the UK, pets were an important source of emotional support for many people during lockdown, reducing the loneliness they reportedly felt and improving their general mental health.
“This work is particularly important at the current time as it indicates how having a companion animal in your home can buffer against some of the psychological stress associated with lockdown,” said animal behaviour researcher Daniel Mills from the University of Lincoln.
We know that loneliness is linked to higher risk of developing other mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.
And from previous research, we are starting to recognise that pets can seriously support people living with severe mental illness, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
This study, however, involved surveying people of all walks of life, and under largely unprecedented circumstances – a pandemic lockdown.
Between mid-April and the end of May, close to 6,000 people living in the UK during lockdown were surveyed about their mental health and their pets.
Most of the study participants had at least one pet, so although the researchers surveyed thousands of people, only a small fraction of people involved didn’t own any pets, meaning the findings are skewed towards animal lovers.
“Results need to be interpreted with this caveat in mind,” the authors explain in their paper. “Nonetheless, in our sample of ‘animal lovers’, having an animal was linked to somewhat attenuated effects of the lockdown experience on mental health and loneliness.”
People who responded to the survey were asked questions about how close they felt to their pet and the comfort their animal friend provided, as well as different ways their pets might have positively affected their wellbeing during lockdown. This could be helping their owners stay active or feeling socially connected to other people.
Participants also assessed their own mental health wellbeing and feelings of loneliness by answering questionnaires about how they felt before and during the UK lockdown.
Analysing the data, the researchers adjusted for other things that may affect a person’s mental health: such as how lonely the person was before lockdown; their age; if they lived alone or with other people; and how many social contacts (with human friends) they had each week.
The vast majority of pet owners (including more than 90 percent of dog, horse, and cat owners) said their animals had helped them cope emotionally with the lockdown, and had positive effects on their family as well.
People with pets were still affected by the lockdown, but owning an animal was associated with smaller declines in mental health and smaller increases in loneliness than what was reported by people who didn’t own pets.
The results are similar to findings from before the pandemic, including, for example, that pets can stave off loneliness by encouraging more social interactions.
Most studies like this to date have focused on dogs and cats, but it turns out, unsurprisingly, that people can form strong emotional connections with any type of pet; it doesn’t depend on which species we choose as our companion.
Once the researchers had accounted for whether people’s pets had a special role in their lives, such as an assistance dog or therapy animal (which can dramatically improve someone’s mental health), there was no significant difference between the emotional bonds people formed with their pets.
“People in our sample felt on average as emotionally close to, for example, their guinea pig as they felt to their dog,” said lead author and mental health researcher Elena Ratschen from the University of York.
So don’t discount unlikely pets: remember goats can be as loving as dogs.
The study also found potential links between people’s mental health and the emotional bonds they form with their pets.
People who reported a stronger bond with their pet in the study tended to report poorer mental health to begin with, which might mean they’re somewhat vulnerable to fluctuations in their mental health, and possibly reliant on their pet for support.
“Interestingly, stronger reported human-animal bonds were associated with poorer mental health pre-lock down, highlighting that close bonds with animals may indicate psychological vulnerability in owners,” the authors said.
But having a pet also sometimes added to stresses during lockdown, the study found, in addition to mitigating stress.
Over two-thirds of pet owners reported worrying about their pets during lockdown. Some people in the survey worried about who would look after their pet if they fell ill. Other owners were concerned that their animal friend might not cope so well when they returned to work after lockdown.
It’s also important to note that while lockdown may have been a little less lonely for pet owners, the overall differences in mental health as reported by animal owners and pet-free people were small. This means we can’t make any grand conclusions that getting a pet would necessarily solve all our worries.
“While our study showed that having a pet may mitigate some of the detrimental psychological effects of the COVID-19 lockdown, it is important to understand that this finding is unlikely to be of clinical significance,” Ratschen and her colleagues noted.
This means the changes to people’s mental health recorded in the study were not so profound that we should go recommending it as a cure-all to other people.
“[It] does not warrant any suggestion that people should acquire pets to protect their mental health during the pandemic,” said Ratschen.
Nonetheless, there has been a huge surge in demand to adopt pets during the pandemic, from New York to Sydney, and there are concerns that many of these animals might be abandoned when people return to school and work, or if they can no longer afford to take care of them.
So remember to look out for your animal friends, just like they look out for us.
The study was published in PLOS One.