Pet owners cope better with COVID-19 lockdowns – and any species will do
A new survey, led by researchers from University of York, has found owning a pet is associated with better mental health during COVID-19 lockdowns. The survey also linked pet ownership to lower levels of loneliness and, interestingly, both positive associations were detected regardless of species.
The new research surveyed almost 6,000 subjects in the United Kingdom, 90 percent of whom reported owning at least one pet. The findings revealed pet owners reported lower levels of loneliness and better general mental health during the pandemic lockdowns compared to those with no animal companionship.
“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,” says lead author on the new study, Elena Ratschen.
Although animals such as horses, dogs and cats did initially score slightly higher on the Comfort from Companion Animals Scale (CCA), these differences disappeared after adjusting for other factors. The researchers suggest this finding is significant as it adds weight to an idea called the "social buffering hypothesis."
In relation to animal companionship, this hypothesis suggests the presence of any kind of animal in a human social group is more relevant than the species-specific characteristics of that animal. So, in the case of mental health resilience in the face of a COVID-19 lockdown, a reptile or a guinea pig may be as helpful as a horse or dog.
“It is often assumed that the human-dog relationship occupies a special status with regard to impact on human health animals above and beyond the relationship with other animals,” the researchers write in the new study. “However, a more recent critical perspective suggests that it may be the adaptability of the dog to working in different ways and possibly its sensitivity to human emotional cues, which may primarily underpin its widespread use in animal assisted interventions, rather than the interpersonal relationship.”
In light of these findings, Ratschen does not suggest people immediately run to the pet store and buy a companion animal. She suggests although the findings in the study were certainly statistically significant, they may not be clinically significant.
“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,” adds Ratschen.
The study’s primary goal was to investigate the relationship between human-animal bonds and mental health vulnerability. The subjects surveyed were not suffering from pre-existing mental health maladies so further study will need to explore whether introducing an animal into those populations could offer protection from the psychological toll of a pandemic lockdown.
The study does also note pet ownership can induce extra anxiety in some instances. Nearly 70 of all pet owners surveyed reported heightened worry for their animal’s well-being during the lockdown. Restrictions on vet access was one factor that generated additional stress for owners concerned over their pet’s 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,” adds co-author Daniel Mills, from the University of Lincoln. “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 new study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Source: University of York