Pets Offer Physical Comfort in Times of Stress

When we can't hug and be around people, animals fill the void.

woman at home with dog in arms
Pets can provide comfort and ease stress. miljko / Getty Images

To the surprise of no one who has a pet, researchers have studied the important role that animal companions play in offering physical comfort to their people and how that connection is critical during the pandemic.

A new study published in the Journal of Behavioural Economics for Policy looks at how pets provide vital support through petting, cuddles, and a constant physical presence. This is especially key during a time of social isolation when human contact can be rare.

Researchers interviewed 32 people ages 59 to 83 years old. Pets included dogs, cats, birds, and reptiles (including one crocodile). More than 90% of the people spoke about touch in relationship to their pets.

“Participants frequently described touch-based interactions with their pets as being comforting or relaxing in a way that contributed to their overall wellbeing,” the researchers wrote. “For our participants, ‘comfort’ is the sense of being somehow cared for by another being.”

Many people in the study spoke about how their pets just seem to “know” when they weren’t feeling well and they would move to get physically near them. They commented on how relaxing and calming petting, cuddling, or just sitting with animals can be.

Different pets are better at providing that comfort, some participants insisted. Many said cats were more relaxing companions than dogs, while others said dogs can be relaxing as long as they were “the right kind of dog.” But almost all pets provided some sort of comfort to their owners when it came to touch.

“Basically the only pet that people didn't talk of touch with was fish!” lead author Janette Young, lecturer in health sciences at the University of South Australia, tells Treehugger.

“Which is consistent with other research. Fish are generally more about relaxation and watching compared to dogs, cats, birds, and even reptiles where people spoke of touch.”

Reciprocal Relationships

Young and her team uncovered the importance of reciprocity in the pet-human relationship. People in the study often commented on how their animals demanded to be petted or seemed to take joy in the interaction. This, in turn, made the humans feel good.

“For our participants, the giving and receiving of touch and the visible joy that another being displays in response to their owner’s touch was inherent to the pleasure of touch,” the researchers wrote. “A cross-species reciprocity and mutuality.”

Some respondents described a certain look their animals give them that they say communicates, “I love you.” One man said his birds make “happy” sounds and nibble on his ear. A woman’s frilled-neck lizard closes his eyes when he is content. A cat wraps its paws around a man’s neck for a cuddle. A dog stays close for pets. A sheep runs to greet its owner when she gets home.

During the pandemic, when people are spending more time alone and are dealing with increased stress and anxiety, pets often are the only living thing people are able to touch and spend time with. 

Researchers suggest that pets can be “helpful in reducing touch deprivation” and the benefits can come from a diverse array of species. This connection can be particularly important in health care and senior care settings where patients and residents are less likely to be able to see friends and family, yet touch is vital and can boost health and happiness. They suggest that hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices encourage pet connection programs.

“Companionable and caring touch is vital to human wellbeing. Human-animal relationships (i.e. pets) offer everyday ready sources of such touch for many, perhaps most, people,” Young says.

“Social policy especially re vulnerable groups needs to to be inclusive of these relationships and support, reduce barriers and enable pet ownership when possible.”

Pets also can offer benefits that in some cases, people can’t.

“Relationships with pets are qualitatively different to those with humans,” Young says. “Animals don't judge, hold grudges, and are with us 24/7.”