Pets are saving many people from the devastating effects of social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study from the University of South Australia. In the absence of human-to-human contact, animals have provided a constant, comforting presence in millions of households.
Study lead author Dr. Janette Young explains that physical touch is a sense that has been taken for granted, and even overlooked, until the pandemic emerged.
“In a year when human contact has been so limited and people have been deprived of touch, the health impacts on our quality of life have been enormous,” said Dr. Young. “To fill the void of loneliness and provide a buffer against stress, there has been a global upsurge in people adopting dogs and cats from animal shelters during lockdowns. Breeders have also been inundated, with demands for puppies quadrupling some waiting lists.”
It is estimated that more than half the global population has one or more pets in their lives. While the health benefits of owning a pet have been well-documented, little is known about the specific benefits that animals bring to humans in terms of touch.
“Pets seem to be particularly important when people are socially isolated or excluded, providing comfort, companionship and a sense of self-worth,” said Dr. Young.
“Touch is an understudied sense, but existing evidence indicates it is crucial for growth, development and health, as well as reducing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. It is also thought that touch may be particularly important for older people as other senses decline.”
More than 90 percent of study participants said that touching their pets was comforting and relaxing. Some reports suggested that animals made physical contact when their owners were sad, distressed, or traumatized.
Many people referenced their pets’ innate ability to “know” when they weren’t feeling well- and the animals stayed physically close to them.
“The feedback we received was that pets themselves seem to get just as much pleasure from the tactile interaction as humans,” said Dr. Young. “Animals, like people, are living, breathing others, with individual interests, styles and preferences. While culturally, animals are not seen as ‘human,’ they are still seen as individuals with likes and dislikes.
“In the era of COVID-19, social distancing, sudden lockdowns and societal upheaval, our pets may be the only living beings that many people are able to touch and draw comfort from.”
“Humans have an innate need to connect with others but in the absence of human touch, pets are helping to fill this void. They need to be considered from a policy angle, therefore, to help mitigate some of the mental and physical stressors that people are experiencing during this time.”
Dr. Young noted that hospitals, hospices, and nursing homes should be encouraging pet connections with residents.
“Residential aged care is yet to recognise the value of human-animal relationships. Had more pets being living with their owners in aged care when COVID-19 restrictions were applied, it could have helped people immeasurably.”
The study is published in the Journal of Behavioral Economics for Policy.
By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer