Pets, including horses, a buffer against Covid-19 lockdown stress – study

Photo by Cathy Childs

Pets appeared to act as a buffer against psychological stress during the Covid-19 lockdown phase, the findings of recent research suggest.

The study, a collaborative effort between the University of York and the University of Lincoln in England, found that having a pet was linked to maintaining better mental health and reducing loneliness.

Around 90 percent of the 6000 participants in the British study had at least one pet.

In all, 334 participants — 6.3% of pet owners taking part — said they kept horses or ponies.

The strength of the human-animal bond did not differ significantly between species, the study found.

More than 90 percent of respondents said their pet helped them cope emotionally with the lockdown and 96 percent said their pet helped keep them fit and active.

However, 68 percent of pet owners reported having been worried about their animals during lockdown, around issues such as restrictions on access to veterinary care and exercise, or because they wouldn’t know who would look after their pet if they fell ill.“Findings from this study also demonstrated potential links between people’s mental health and the emotional bonds they form with their pets,” said lead author Dr Elena Ratschen, from the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York.

“Measures of the strength of the human-animal bond were higher among people who reported lower scores for mental health-related outcomes at baseline.

“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.”

Co-author Professor Daniel Mills, from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, said the research is particularly important at present as it showed how having a companion animal in the home can buffer against some of the psychological stress associated with lockdown.

Researchers found the strength of the emotional bond with pets did not statistically differ by animal species.

“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.”

Dr Ratschen added: “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.”

The vast majority of companion animal owners in the study said that their animals constituted an important source of emotional support, with dogs, cats, horses and other companion farm animals scoring highest in this regard.

More than 40 percent of households in Britain are estimated to own at least one pet.

The study also showed that the most popular interaction with animals that were not pets was bird-watching. Almost 55 per cent of people surveyed reported watching and feeding birds in their garden.