A growing body of research indicates that ongoing and prolonged loneliness is associated with adverse health outcomes, including elevated risk for diabetes, hypertension, cancer, coronary artery disease, depression, anxiety and suicide.
The pandemic—especially during periods of strict lockdown—has led to a heightened risk for all of these adverse outcomes, based on a recent CDC study. Symptoms of anxiety increased nearly three fold compared to the second quarter of 2019, and diagnoses of depression quadrupled, with 40% of adults in the U.S. reporting they have struggled with mental health or substance abuse during April to June of 2020.
While Zoom and social media may help to ease loneliness during periods of lockdown, in-person human connection is ideal. However, when that is not possible or feasible, bonds that people form with animals can prove to be quite valuable in this regard.
In fact, it turns out that one potential way to reduce escalating psychological stress during lockdown periods is having a pet in your home, according to results of a new study.
The study was published in the journal, PLoS One.
Because humans are social beings, they need emotional nurturing to maintain ideal physical and mental health. And it seems that based on the results of the current study, pets can help to bolster mental health while reducing the emotional pain associated with loneliness.
The study out of the UK involved over 6,000 participants, of which 90% owned at least one pet. Results from the study indicated that more than 90% felt that their pet helped them cope emotionally during the lockdown period (from March 23- June 1 in the UK), with 96% responding that their pet helped them to stay active and keep in shape.
But 68% of pet owners indicated that they were concerned and worried about their animals during lockdown. This arose primarily from concerns about access to veterinary care and getting exercise for their pet during the lockdown. But added stress about whom would look after their pet if they became ill was also an additional concern.
“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,” said lead author, Dr. Elena Ratschen, Senior Lecturer in Health Services Research, of the University of York.
Ratschen explained that “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. It will be important to ensure that pet owners are appropriately supported in caring for their pet during the pandemic.”
“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 effects for both people and their pets.” said co-author Dr. Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioral Medicine, in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln.
But Dr. Ratschen also explained that the findings of the study do not mean that one should go out and adopt a pet to improve or sustain their mental health during the pandemic. “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,” she cautioned.
With more than 40% of UK households estimated to own at least one pet, the study bodes well for current pet owners. While Ratschen could not recommend that persons with existing mental health issues, and without a pet to go out and adopt one, it seems that the benefits of companionship would likely favor pet ownership.
Interestingly, the study also found that birdwatching was the most common interaction with animals that were not pets, with nearly 55% of participants reporting observing and feeding birds in their garden.