Pets help us through the pandemic – even if it stresses them out
Some pet owners observed behavioral changes in their charges during the lockdown.
A therapy dog named Casey snuggles with his owner. The Siberian husky was a source of support for the entire Massachusetts family during the coronavirus pandemic.
No quick end to the pandemic in sight yet. So while many people remain more or less alone in the lockdown, they often find comfort and companionship in their pets.
The new appreciation for animal companions can even be measured statistically. Worldwide demand for pets to either adopt or foster increased from Canada to India. Between March and September 2020, the number of foster pets in U.S. households increased by 8 percent, according to PetPoint, which collects industry data on pet adoption.
Majority of pet owners surveyed said their pets provide them with emotional support in times of current pandemic.
While the health benefits of having a pet are well known – from lowering blood prere to reducing stress – the relationship between humans and animals is a bit more complex. How pet owners and their pets cope with long lockdowns is an open question.
To find out, researchers in Spain, Israel and the United Kingdom conducted online surveys of pet owners. Their studies, published in three different scientific journals, found that overall, our animal friends provided additional comfort.
But the research also revealed some troubling trends: Pandemic restrictions are making pet owners fear for their pets' well-being. Not only that, but some pets show signs of stress, including increased barking, fear of loud or sudden noises, and restlessness when home alone.
In April 2020, behavior consultant Jon Bowen of the Royal Veterinary College in London surveyed 1.297 dog and cat owners in Spain on their feelings toward their pets and their pets' recent behavior. Most owners said their pets had been an "essential support" during the pandemic. Still, 62 percent of respondents said their pet's quality of life had declined. About 41 percent also reported seeing behavioral changes in their pets during the pandemic, especially in dogs that had shown behavioral problems in the past.
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Numerous research findings show that dogs have emotions of their own and can be infected by the emotions of their owners. This is especially true if the owner is emotionally dependent on them, says Bowen, whose study appeared in the May 2020 Journal of Veterinary Behavior.
"It was really interesting that the results of the three studies were remarkably similar," says Emily McCobb. The clinical professor at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine was not involved in any of the studies. "They are very similar to what we are hearing here [in the U.S.], at least anecdotally."
"People are adopting more and more pets. And they're finding that their animals are helping them cope with isolation," McCobb says. In her veterinary practice, "we see that in animals that have had behavior problems, they seem to get worse".
New concerns among pet owners
In April and June 2020, Elena Ratschen, a lecturer at England's University of York, surveyed 5.926 people in the U.K. on their mental health, well-being and loneliness, as well as their attachment to and interaction with their pets.
The survey, published in September 2020 in the journal PLOS ONE, covered all pets, including fish, birds, dogs, cats and small mammals. Most respondents – including 91 percent of dog owners, 89 percent of cat owners and 95 percent of horse and farm animal owners – said their pets "provide an important source of emotional support," according to Ratschen.
Individuals who reported being more vulnerable to mental health problems before the pandemic said they experienced a stronger bond with their pet during the pandemic.
In addition, overall, pet owners felt less lonely and isolated than respondents who did not own pets. This could be due to a "buffer effect." Pets can't replace our social interactions with other humans, but they can help fill that gap, says Ratschen.
But both the Spanish and British studies noted new anxieties among pet owners. These included whether their dog gets enough exercise, the ability to buy pet food, access to veterinary care, and who will take care of the pet if the owners get sick. Another source of concern was uncertainty about how their pet will adapt to life after the pandemic.