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Pets and owners had complex relationships during the pandemic

A recent analysis conducted by researchers at Purdue University has shed new light on the relationship between pet ownership, stress, and loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, reveals that while pet owners grew closer to their pets during the pandemic, the links between pet ownership and mental health were more complex than previously thought.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided a unique opportunity to study the impacts of pet ownership on mental health, and the researchers wanted to explore this relationship in more depth. The study included a series of surveys that were conducted prior to the pandemic, during the lockdown period of April to June 2020, the reopening of September to December 2020, and a recovery period from January to December 2021.

The surveys captured the dynamics of dog and cat ownership in the United States and included questions related to participants’ closeness to the pet, stress and loneliness levels, demographics, housing situation, personality, and other potentially relevant factors. The participants included 1,266 people with dogs and cats, 1,186 with only dogs, 1,128 with only cats, and 657 with no pets.

The results of the survey showed that both dog and cat owners grew closer to their pets during the study period. However, the links between pet ownership and mental health were more complex than expected. 

While dog owners experienced a greater reduction in stress and loneliness during the reopening and recovery periods compared to cat owners and participants without pets, the researchers did not find statistically sound evidence that pet ownership eased participants’ stress and loneliness levels during the pandemic. Cat owners, in particular, reported higher levels of stress and loneliness.

However, further analysis showed that pet ownership may have had an impact on certain types of loneliness. Pet owners, in general, reported less loneliness related to romantic relationships compared to non-pet owners.

The researchers noted that the different results seen for dog versus cat owners could be explained by differences in the pet-owner relationship between these two groups. 

“People felt closer toward their pets during the COVID-19 pandemic even though pet ownership did not mitigate stress and loneliness,” wrote the study authors. “Dog ownership and cat ownership acted differently on mental health, but the difference between them could be partially explained away by the owner-pet relationship.”

The findings of this study add to the growing body of research on the impact of pet ownership on mental health and highlight the need for more research in this area. The researchers plan to continue collecting data through 2023 to capture any further changes in pet-owner relationships, stress, and loneliness. 

While pet ownership may not necessarily alleviate stress and loneliness, the relationship between pet and owner may play a significant role in mental health outcomes during times of crisis.

More about pets and mental health

There is a growing body of research which suggests that pets can have a positive impact on mental health. Several studies have found that pet ownership is associated with reduced levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. 

Pets can provide comfort and companionship, which can help to reduce feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Pets can also encourage physical activity and provide a sense of purpose and responsibility, which can help to improve overall well-being.

One study conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri found that interacting with pets can help to increase levels of the hormone oxytocin, which is known to have a calming effect on the body. Another study found that pets can help to reduce levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.

Pet therapy programs have also been shown to have positive effects on mental health. These programs involve trained therapy animals visiting hospitals, nursing homes, and other care facilities to provide comfort and companionship to patients. Studies have found that pet therapy can help to reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

However, it’s important to note that pet ownership is not a panacea for mental health problems. Owning a pet can be a significant responsibility and requires time, effort, and resources. For some people, the demands of pet ownership may actually increase levels of stress and anxiety. Additionally, some people may have allergies or other health conditions that make pet ownership impractical.

Overall, while pets can provide many benefits to mental health, it’s important to carefully consider the decision to bring a pet into your life and to ensure that you are able to provide the care and support that your pet needs.

Can pets help to reduce loneliness?

Some pets are known to be particularly social and affectionate, which can make them good companions for people who are feeling lonely. Here are a few examples:


Dogs are known for their loyalty and affection towards their owners. They are social animals and enjoy spending time with their human companions. Dogs also require regular exercise and playtime, which can encourage their owners to stay active and engaged.


Cats are independent animals that can provide comfort and companionship without requiring as much attention as dogs. They are also known for their soothing purring and relaxing presence, which can help to reduce stress and anxiety.


Birds are social animals that can form strong bonds with their owners. They are known for their singing and chirping, which can be soothing and calming. Some birds, such as parrots, can also learn to mimic human speech, which can be entertaining and engaging.

Guinea pigs 

Guinea pigs are social animals that enjoy being around other guinea pigs and humans. They are easy to care for and can be quite affectionate. Guinea pigs are also known for their vocalizations, which can be amusing and endearing.


While fish may not provide the same level of interaction and companionship as other pets, they can still be calming and relaxing to watch. Fish tanks can also be visually appealing and provide a sense of tranquility and peace.

Ultimately, the best pet to cure loneliness will depend on the individual’s personality, lifestyle, and preferences. It’s important to carefully consider the demands of pet ownership and choose a pet that is a good fit for your lifestyle and circumstances.


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