Puppy Love: Study Finds Dogs Helped Owners Cope With Pandemic’s Psychological Toll
Man’s (and woman’s) best friend to the rescue.
One in five American households adopted a dog or cat since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a national American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals survey. That’s a lot of furry new additions to the family, but can we blame our neighbors?
Our canine and feline friends are goofy, attentive, and always manage to put a smile on our faces — and new research suggests man’s best friend provided dog owners with the extra love and social support they needed to get through a year of lockdowns, social distancing, working from home, and a raging global health crisis.
In a study published in December in the journal PLoS One, scientists reported that dog owners had more social support and fewer depressive symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic compared with peers who didn’t own a dog.
“Dogs play an important role in people’s emotional lives. And it looks like they helped their owners cope better with this difficult situation we’ve all been in,” says Francois Martin, PhD, the study’s lead author, who is a researcher in the animal behavior and welfare group at Nestlé Purina in St. Louis, which researches interactions between people and their pets. (The pet food company Purina funded the research.)
Dr. Martin — who owns two Great Danes — says dogs were the ultimate lockdown companion, whether we wanted to binge watch Tiger King on Netflix, bake sourdough bread, or make like Marie Kondo and declutter the home.
“I’m always amazed that dogs are cool with any agenda we propose to them. They’re extremely smart, social animals, attuned to our feelings and our signals. They’re always happy to see you — this kind of comfort is powerful during these times,” Martin says.
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Dog Owners Felt More Supported Throughout COVID
The study from Martin’s team included 1,535 volunteer participants from across the United States — 768 dog owners and 767 “potential dog owners” (defined for the purpose of this study as people who said they were extremely interested in owning a dog in the future). Because the researchers wanted to zero in solely on dog ownership, participants didn’t own any other types of pets. People who owned service, emotional support, or therapy dogs were also excluded from the study.
In either November 2020 or February 2021, both groups answered online questionnaires on topics, such as the amount of social support they felt like they had from family and friends, along with their levels of happiness, anxiety, and depression. The questions were designed using six validated psychometric scales that are used by psychologists to diagnose and measure levels of depression, anxiety, and overall mood.
Sixty-seven percent of all study participants said their emotions had been somewhat to extremely impacted, while 45 percent said their finances took a hit during the pandemic. Seventy-two percent of participants said their lifestyle had also drastically changed since March 2020.
But the researchers found that people who owned dogs reported having more social support available to them. In the study, social support meant three things: being cared for, feeling loved and valued, and having a sense of belonging.
The effect wasn’t large compared with the group without dogs, but Martin says it was still “statistically significant.” While dog owners’ depression scores were also lower, it’s worth noting there were no differences between both groups on levels of anxiety and happiness, though.
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Emotional Benefits of Pet Ownership Is a Growing Area of Research
The findings build on growing research that’s highlighted the benefits of pet ownership amidst the pandemic, says Nancy Gee, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. She’s been studying human-animal interaction for the past 20 years.
“We need more research on the topic that’s like this, that uses validated, reliable, and standardized measures of loneliness, anxiety, and depression,” Dr. Gee says.
Gee is a coauthor of research published in August 2021 in the journal Animals that found that according to survey responses from 1,199 people, more than 85 percent of dog owners and 75 percent of cat owners believed their pets had a positive effect on their well-being during the pandemic. (Participants completed surveys between June 2020 and January 2021.)
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According to the research, people reported their dogs helped motivate them to get out of the house for a daily walk for fresh air and exercise and interact with neighbors.
Pets provided a sense of purpose or a “reason to keep going,” helped the household maintain a daily routine, and gave owners a welcomed distraction from rising infection rates and updates on social distancing rules, according to the survey data collected.
Other COVID-era research found that dog owners also felt that having their pet around made isolation easier, providing a companion to talk out loud to and to cuddle with, according to a study published in August 2020 in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry.
Gee’s team concluded from their research that pet ownership meant “never being alone.”
Dogs deserve more credit beyond being funny companions, Gee says. From lowering blood pressure and risk of heart disease to improving mood and stress levels, research shows they can do wonders for our physical and mental health. During interaction, both dogs and their owners are flooded with oxytocin, the feel-good, bonding hormone, and decreased levels of stress hormone cortisol, according to a study published in 2017 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
“There’s more to it than just making us smile. There’s something special about our connection with dogs and how they help us to connect with other people and our world,” Gee says.
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