Pets help people cope with the stress of isolation and loneliness, according to a UK study. During quarantine and self-isolation measures, animals were an important source of emotional support for many people.
The research team conducted a survey of people from all walks of life who were isolated during the pandemic. Between mid-April and late May, about 6,000 self-isolating people in the UK were interviewed about their mental health and their pets.
It’s worth noting that most of the study participants had at least one pet. Although the researchers interviewed thousands of people, only a small fraction of the participants had no pets. Results may be biased towards animal lovers.
“The results should be interpreted with this caveat in mind,” the authors explain in their article. “However, the presence of an animal can indeed be associated with the weakened negative effects of isolation and loneliness on mental health.”
Study participants reported that pets reduced feelings of loneliness. Loneliness is known to be associated with a higher risk of developing other mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Pets can also support people living with severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
People were asked how close they were to their pet and whether their pet provided additional comfort. The researchers also wondered about the various ways in which pets could positively influence the well-being of owners during isolation. Participants shared that pets helped them stay active or feel socially connected with other people.
Participants were also asked to rate their own mental health and feelings of loneliness by answering questionnaires about how they felt before and during isolation.
In analyzing the data, the researchers took into account other factors that can affect a person’s mental health: for example, how lonely the person was before isolation; their age; whether they lived alone or with other people; and how many social contacts they had each week.
Most pet owners said their pets helped them emotionally cope with isolation and also had a positive impact on their family relationships.
Pet ownership was associated with less mental health impairment and less increase in loneliness than reported by people without pets.
The results are consistent with similar studies that were conducted before the pandemic. For example, pets can help prevent feelings of loneliness by encouraging more social interaction.
Most of this work focuses on dogs and cats, but scientists say humans can form strong emotional bonds with any kind of pet. The positive effect does not depend on which species the person chooses as a companion.
That being said, research has shown that having a pet sometimes exacerbates stress during isolation. Some survey participants were worried about who would look after their pet if they got sick.
The researchers concluded that a pet may not solve all of a person’s worries, but slightly improves the general mental state of the owners.
The study was published in the journal PLOS One.