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Pets did not improve emotional well-being during the pandemic

A recent study by Michigan State University (MSU) has explored the role of pets in influencing human well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Pets have been long recognized for their positive impact on human well-being, both mentally and physically. Previous research suggests that pets increase levels of hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin in humans, which are associated with feelings of happiness​​. 

Additionally, interacting with pets has been shown to reduce blood pressure, slow heart rates, and decrease cortisol levels, a hormone related to stress​​.

Perceived benefits of pets

The study involved 767 participants and was conducted over three periods in May 2020. The goal was to understand the impact of pet ownership on well-being during some of the most challenging weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pet owners in the study often reported positive experiences with their pets, such as increased positive emotions, affection, and companionship. They believed their pets made them happier.

Contrasting data

Despite these positive sentiments, the study found no significant difference in well-being between pet owners and non-pet owners. 

This finding was consistent regardless of the type of pet, the number of pets owned, the closeness with the pet, or the personality of the owner.

New insights

William Chopik, an associate professor in MSU’s Department of Psychology and co-author of the study, expressed that although people believe pets boost happiness, the study’s measurements did not support this notion. 

“People say that pets make them happy, but when we actually measure happiness, that doesn’t appear to be the case,” said Chopik. “People see friends as lonely or wanting companionship, and they recommend getting a pet. But it’s unlikely that it’ll be as transformative as people think.” 

Emotional well-being 

The research team speculated that non-pet owners might have other sources of happiness in their lives. Chopik emphasized the importance of not relying solely on pets for emotional well-being and considering other avenues that could contribute to happiness.

“Staking all of your hope on a pet making you feel better is probably unfair and is maybe costly given other things you could do in your life that could improve your happiness,” said Chopik. 

Study implications 

The study challenges the widely held belief that pets are a surefire way to enhance one’s happiness, particularly in times of crisis like the pandemic. It suggests that while pets can provide emotional support and companionship, they may not significantly impact overall well-being compared to other factors in a person’s life. 

Further research is needed to explore the complex relationship between pet ownership and human happiness, especially in varying contexts and life situations.

Benefits of pet ownership 

Despite the finding that pets did not improve well-being during the pandemic, the benefits of pet ownership are well-documented.

Previous studies indicate that pet owners tend to have healthier hearts, are less likely to stay home sick, make fewer visits to the doctor, get more exercise, and are less prone to depression compared to non-pet owners. 

Furthermore, pets – especially dogs and cats – are known to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and playfulness, and even improve cardiovascular health. The role of pets is particularly significant in the development of children and the companionship they provide to older adults. 

Caring for an animal can help children grow up to be more secure and active, and for older adults, pets offer valuable companionship​​.

The study is published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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