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Study: Benefits and challenges of animal ownership during the pandemic

The effects of pet ownership on human mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic have been a bit of a mixed bag.

That’s according to a new study by researchers at the University of York in the UK, who asked nearly 6,000 pet owners across the UK a series of questions during the country’s first nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19.

That lockdown began on March 23, 2020, and lasted into July.

Four themes emerged from the study:

  • The positive impact of animal ownership during the first COVID-19 lockdown phase
  • Concerns relating to animal ownership
  • Grief and the loss of an animal during the lockdown
  • The impact of engaging with noncompanion animals

NEWStat reached out to author Emily Shoesmith, MS, a researcher in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York, to find out more.

Shoesmith said most people reported that their animal provided an important source of companionship and emotional support during the pandemic. “Animal ownership also appeared to give respondents a sense of purpose and focus during the lockdown phase [and promoted] consistency and routine in their daily life,” she added.

But there were also challenges. Pet owner concerns included access to veterinary care as well as worries that animals could carry COVID-19. She said COVID-related financial worries also played a role, with some participants expressing concern over their ability to buy pet food and other pet-related necessities.

Shoesmith said the findings extend our understanding of the potential mechanisms of benefits that were previously identified in dogs to other species, including wildlife. Per the study, the researchers found “a general sense that interactions with noncompanion animals and frequent contact with nature had a positive impact on mental health [among respondents].”

She said this finding is particularly interesting, given that it’s often assumed that the human-dog relationship occupies a special status regarding impact on mental health and wellbeing. “This aligns with our previous findings that indicate the strength of the human-animal bond did not vary significantly by species.”

However, a number of participants said that, despite the bond with their animal, it wasn’t a replacement for human social contact, which was (as it was in most countries) severely restricted due to the need for social distancing.

As one respondent told the researchers: “My dogs and cats are not a replacement for human contact, which I am sorely missing. But they have been a welcome distraction and have given me something to focus on and stopped me from feeling so lonely.”