Pets Linked to Better Well-Being During Pandemic

From fish and dogs to guinea pigs, pets help their humans cope during lockdown.

A young woman and her Shar-Pei napping on a couch
The majority of study participants say their pets help them cope emotionally with the pandemic. fStop Images - Winnie Au / Getty Images

As we head into winter with little end in sight for the pandemic, many people are taking comfort from their four-legged friends.

Relationships with pets appear to be linked to better well-being during times of COVID-19, according to a new study out of the U.K. 

Of the nearly 6,000 people researchers surveyed about pets and the pandemic, more than 90% had at least one pet. About 87% of respondents said their pet helped them cope emotionally with the lockdown and 73% said their animal helped them stay fit and active. About 95% said they couldn’t imagine being without their pet at this time.

The majority of respondents had just one pet. The most common companions were dogs and cats, followed by small mammals, then fish.

Participants were asked to think about the animal they felt closest to and then rate how much they agreed on seven statements regarding the role of that pet during the pandemic lockdown situation. 

  • “My animal helps me cope emotionally with the COVID-19 situation.”
  • “My animal keeps me fit and active in the COVID-19 situation.”
  • “My animal is the reason I keep in touch with some people or social media groups.”
  • “My animal has positive effects on my family at this time.”
  • “My animal causes problems in my family at this time.”
  • “I can’t imagine being without my animal at this time.”
  • “It would be easier for me not to have an animal at this time.”

Participants were also asked whether they felt worried about their pets during the pandemic for a range of reasons including restricted access to veterinary care, financial concerns, separation anxiety, changes in the household routine, or any other problems. About two-thirds of survey respondents said they had at least some concerns about their pets during this time.

"Findings from this study also demonstrated potential links between people's mental health and the emotional bonds they form with their pets: measures of the strength of the human-animal bond were higher among people who reported lower scores for mental health-related outcomes at baseline,” said lead author Dr. Elena Ratschen from the Department of Health Sciences University of York in a statement.

"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.”

The study was published in the journal PLOS One.

About 5% of the participants said they had added pets to their household during the pandemic and just over one-fifth said they were considering adding or fostering a pet during the COVID-19 crisis.

The researchers caution that while the pet may offer benefits for human well-being, it’s important to tend to the pet’s welfare too.

"This work is particularly important at the current time as it indicates how having a companion animal in your home can buffer against some of the psychological stress associated with lockdown,” says co-author, professor Daniel Mills from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln.

“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."