Pets, touch and COVID-19: Why our furry friends are lifesavers

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benefits of pet ownership
Photo: Jozef Polc – 123rf

As lockdowns, job losses and social isolation have put paid to human-to-human contact in millions of households worldwide, a new Australian study has found that animals have stepped into the breach for many people, providing much-needed comfort via cuddles, pats and a constant physical presence.

The study by University of South Australia researchers points to the lifesaving role that pets have played in 2020 and why governments need to sit up and take notice.

In a paper published in the the Journal of Behavioural Economics for Policy (JBEP), the researchers outline how pets have a crucial role to play in an era where human to human contact can be life endangering.

“In a year when human contact has been so limited and people have been deprived of touch, the health impacts on our quality of life have been enormous,” lead author Dr Janette Young said.

“To fill the void of loneliness and provide a buffer against stress, there has been a global upsurge in people adopting dogs and cats from animal shelters during lockdowns. Breeders have also been inundated, with demands for puppies quadrupling some waiting lists.”

It is estimated that more than half the global population share their lives with one or more pets. The health benefits have been widely reported, but little data exists regarding the specific benefits that pets bring to humans in terms of touch.

“Pets seem to be particularly important when people are socially isolated or excluded, providing comfort, companionship and a sense of self-worth,” Dr Young said.

“Touch is an understudied sense, but existing evidence indicates it is crucial for growth, development and health, as well as reducing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. It is also thought that touch may be particularly important for older people as other senses decline.”

In interviews with 32 people, more than 90 per cent said touching their pets both comforted and relaxed them—and the pets seemed to need it as well.

Examples of dogs and cats touching their owners when the latter were distressed, sad, or traumatised were cited.

Many people referenced pets’ innate ability to just ‘know’ when their human owners weren’t feeling well and to want to get physically close to them.

“The feedback we received was that pets themselves seem to get just as much pleasure from the tactile interaction as humans,” Dr Young said,

Not just dogs and cats either. Interviewees mentioned birds, sheep, horses and even reptiles who reciprocate touch.

“Humans have an innate need to connect with others but in the absence of human touch, pets are helping to fill this void. They need to be considered from a policy angle, therefore, to help mitigate some of the mental and physical stressors that people are experiencing during this time,” Dr Young said.

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