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TRENDING SCIENCE: Feeling stressed and lonely during COVID-19? Having a pet helps a lot, new research shows

Pets can support people through the loneliness of lockdown and have a positive impact on morale.

Fundamental Research

The benefits of owning a pet for health and well-being are widely known, such as decreasing loneliness and anxiety and lifting mood. During uncertain times like the coronavirus crisis and various forms of lockdown, pets can be a lifesaver, according to research published in the journal ‘PLOS ONE’. Between April and June 2020, researchers conducted an online survey of 5 926 United Kingdom residents over 18 years of age. Nearly 90 % had at least one companion animal. The most common pets were cats and dogs, followed by small mammals and fish.

Man’s best friend during tough times, too

Over 90 % said that their pet provided considerable emotional support with the lockdown. Carried out by the University of York and the University of Lincoln, the study found that having a pet was associated with maintaining improved mental health and lowering loneliness levels. The power of the human-animal bond didn’t vary greatly between species. In addition, the study showed that birdwatching was the most popular interaction with animals that weren’t pets. Almost 55 % said they watched and fed birds in their gardens. On the other hand, 68 % worried about their pets during lockdown. These included lack of access to veterinary care, little to no exercise and concerns over who would look after their pets if they became ill. “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,” lead author Dr Elena Ratschen from the University of York’s Department of Health Sciences commented in a news release by the same institution. “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.” She added: “It will be important to ensure that pet owners are appropriately supported in caring for their pet during the pandemic.” Co-author Prof. Daniel Mills from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln discussed the issue of stress for owners and their companions: “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.”

Pets are for life, not just for lockdowns

Dr Ratschen recommended that people shouldn’t just rush out to get a pet to lift their spirits as they try to cope with the coronavirus: “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.”

Keywords

pet, loneliness, COVID-19, coronavirus, pandemic, lockdown