Pandemic Pup-take

Research

Puppy with masks

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 44% of U.S. households had a dog. As the pandemic shut down schools and businesses, nearly one in five families adopted a dog or a cat. I don’t have a pet myself, but I borrow my friends’ and neighbors’ dogs regularly as a preventative mental health measure.

Owning a dog is known to decrease isolation and loneliness. Pets can provide social support, including affection, the feeling of being cared for, and a sense of belonging. These factors can improve mental health outcomes during stressful events like losing a loved one. Studies of pet ownership outcomes have been mixed, however, sometimes finding that the added responsibility of dog ownership can actually increase an owner’s stress levels. But that was before the pandemic’s perfect storm of unemployment, uncertainty, social isolation and grief heralded surges in adult anxiety and depression.

More recent research has investigated if new pandemic pet owners are any better off than those of us without. Several studies have found that pet ownership improved mood, reduced loneliness, increased social support, and relieved stress by increased physical exercise during COVID-19. Surveys of dog owners during the pandemic associated lower levels of loneliness with dog ownership.

A group of researchers led by Francois Martin hypothesized that dog ownership might act as a buffer against negative mental health impacts of COVID. The researchers surveyed 768 dog owners and 767 potential dog owners about depression and anxiety symptoms, happiness, their attitudes towards pets, and perceived social support. Anxiety and happiness scores were not significantly different among the two groups. However, dog owners reported lower depression scores and more social support than did potential dog owners. The researchers concluded that increased dog ownership could have helped buffer some of the negative psychological impacts of COVID.

The study does not overlook the fact that some dogs are actually full-time health care workers. Dog owners whose dog was a service, emotional support, or therapy dog were therefore not included in the study. However, the “dog effect” described by the researchers may be stronger among individuals in precarious situations. Some studies have found that dogs can substitute for the social support of other humans when a person is socially isolated by COVID-19 or experiencing homelessness.

The takeaway? Don’t buy your pet-avoidant friend a dog because she’s lonely. But your widower neighbor who has been itching to adopt a dog again and hasn’t committed? You could throw a word of encouragement his way. And, if you’re like me, you might poach some of those sweet mental health benefits by offering to take friends’ dogs out for a walk.

Photo via Getty Images

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