Pets played a role in protecting their owners from psychological stress and loneliness during COVID-19 lockdowns, according to a new study from the University of York. Among thousands of survey respondents who were pet owners, 90 percent said their pet helped them cope emotionally with the lockdown, while 96 percent said their pet helped keep them stay active and fit.
“Findings from this study also demonstrated potential links between people’s mental health and the emotional bonds they form with their pets: measures of the strength of the human-animal bond were higher among people who reported lower scores for mental health-related outcomes at baseline,” said study lead author Dr. Elena Ratschen.
Overall, most pet owners who participated in the research perceived their pets to be a source of considerable support for them as they sheltered in place. The researchers found that the mental health benefits were not significantly different among species, with the most common pets being cats and dogs.
“We also discovered that in this study, the strength of the emotional bond with pets did not statistically differ by animal species, meaning that people in our sample felt on average as emotionally close to, for example, their guinea pig as they felt to their dog,” said Dr. Ratschen. “It will be important to ensure that pet owners are appropriately supported in caring for their pet during the pandemic.”
Study co-author Daniel Mills is a professor in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln.
“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. However, it is important that everyone appreciates their pet’s needs too, as our other work shows failing to meet these can have a detrimental effect for both people and their pets.”
The surveys, which were conducted in the UK, revealed that the most popular interaction with animals other than pets was birdwatching. Nearly 55 percent of participants reported watching and feeding birds in their garden.
“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 and does not warrant any suggestion that people should acquire pets to protect their mental health during the pandemic,” noted Dr. Ratschen.
The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.