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Pets Play Crucial Role in Fighting Loneliness During COVID-19, Research Shows

Pets help fight loneliness illo

Bailey Mariner / Verywell

 

Key Takeaways

  • Pets of all types have been shown to lessen the negative effects that COVID-19 has on mental health.
  • Pet companionship has overall positive benefits, but is not a one-size-fits-all solution to pandemic stress.

One of the most undeniably challenging aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, besides the disease itself, is the toll that a lack of social interaction has had on mental health. The continued flux between social distancing and quarantine in many places has lead to heightened levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.

Luckily, psychologists are discovering that animal companions may play a significant role in providing relief. A recent 2020 study for PLoS ONE examined whether pets have a role in combating this loneliness, and the role that certain pets can have on a person's mental health state. The results are promising enough to make you consider a trip to the local animal shelter.

What Did the Study Show?

This study surveyed UK residents over the age of 18 online in regards to their companion animals. According to the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA), companion animals are defined as, "...any domestic-bred or wild-caught animals, permanently living in a community and kept by people for company, enjoyment, work (e.g. support for blind or deaf people, police, or military dogs) or psychological support–including, but not limited to dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, reptiles, birds, and ornamental fish."

Of 5,926 survey participants, who varied in demographics regarding age, ethnicity, employment, and marital status, and education, nearly 90% of them owned a pet. The online survey included an 11-item questionnaire requesting response ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree" on a Comfort from Companion Animal Scale (CCA).

Researchers used a mixed-method to inquire about participants' mental health prior to the lockdown, utilizing the Short Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale, a shortened version of the UCLA loneliness scale, and one additional mental health scale known as the SF-36 (MHI-5).

This cross-sectional study method revealed that while the state of mental health for individuals prior to the pandemic varied, pet ownership during this time has lessened the decline of individual mental health and simultaneously mitigated symptoms of loneliness. What's more, the strength of the human-animal bond did not depend on a pet's species.

Animal Companions and Mental Health

Animals can serve multiple purposes, ranging from household pals to assistant bomb detectors, but have also been and have been shown to aid in physical and mental health issues. "Pets have been shown to lower blood pressure, decrease allergies in children, calm or prevent panic attacks, and overall encourage movement and wellness," says Prairie Conlon, LPC, NCC and clinical director of CertaPet.

Prairie Conlon, LPC, NCC

Pets have been shown to lower blood pressure, decrease allergies in children, calm or prevent panic attacks, and overall encourage movement and wellness.

— Prairie Conlon, LPC, NCC

Support is also a common role for animals for people with disabilities, ranging in assistance for folks who are blind, live with seizure disorders, or need help walking.

Arguably the most common utilization for animals is that of companionship, whether it is as a household pet for the family, or to combat loneliness. "Pets help combat feelings of loneliness by simply being a physical presence that demands routine, accountability, and consistency through feeding, playtime, and general overall care. They require movement and care that often increases personal motivation and self-care habits." says Conlon.

Pets can also give people a sense of purpose and grounding in an otherwise chaotic time. "For some people, a pet provides a sense of purpose. Having to feed your pet and take care of them can be a good reason to get out of bed. And that sense of purpose can be vital to your emotional health," says Amy Morin, LCSW, a psychotherapist and host of the Mentally Strong People podcast.

Everyone Has Different Needs

Because the mental health needs of individuals vary on a regular basis, during the pandemic proves no different. For that reason, it's important to do your research before adding another member to your family, since certain pets may require more investment of time and energy than others. For instance, a pet bunny can be an adorable and soothing companion, and probably won't be as expensive as a dog.

Amy Morin, LCSW

For some people, a pet provides a sense of purpose. Having to feed your pet and take care of them can be a good reason to get out of bed. And that sense of purpose can be vital to your emotional health.

— Amy Morin, LCSW

The topic of which pet to get might be something to discuss with a mental health expert. "Just like any form of clinical treatment, I want to use a therapeutic modality that suits the client and works well for their lifestyle and where they are at with their mental health symptoms," says Conlon. "I want to explore the pros and cons [of each animal] and then make a decision from there."

What This Means For You

While pets are known for their positive benefits for emotional, mental, and even physical health, the stressors felt during this pandemic are unprecedented. For those of you that already have a pet at home, it is very likely their presence has helped to alleviate some of your anxiety.

However, as with most methods of mental health management, consulting with a doctor or mental health professional would be the optimal way to determine if adopting a pet would be right for you. 

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