Study shows animal ownership during pandemic presented both challenges and benefits

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pet ownership during pandemic
Photo: Susan Richey-Schmitz 123RF

Animal owners frequently reported concerns and worries relating to caring for their animal during the pandemic, new research from England suggests.

The study, by researchers at the University of York—and published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health—also revealed owners had increased their appreciation of their animals during the first lockdown phase. The notion that people “could not live without” their animals and that they were a “godsend” or a “lifeline” in the pandemic was frequently expressed.

The study investigated the role of animals as sources of emotional and physical support during the pandemic. 

There was consensus among participants that companion animals constituted a reliable source of support, providing unconditional love, affection and companionship. Animals were frequently perceived as being able to enhance mood, reduce stress, and help people to cope generally with the COVID-19 lockdown phase. 

However, the study also showed that animal ownership may result in significant concerns that might have outweighed the benefits in some cases.

Nearly 6000 people across the UK took part in the research which asked participants a series of questions during the first lockdown, including outcomes related to mental health, wellbeing and loneliness; the human-animal bond and human-animal interactions.

The final item of the survey invited free-text responses, allowing participants to describe any experiences of their human-animal relationships during the first lockdown phase. Four main themes were identified including the positive impact of animal ownership during the COVID-19 lockdown phase, concerns relating to animal ownership, grief and loss of an animal during the COVID-19 lockdown, and the impact of engaging with non-companion animals.

Some participants said that their animals helped them cope with mental health conditions. Others reported that their animals were able to provide unique emotional support as a result of their ability to respond to their owners in an intuitive manner, especially in times of distress. 

Many participants also commented that animal ownership encouraged and promoted physical activity, especially for owners of dogs and horses. 

Negative aspects to animal ownership during lockdown were also described by a number of participants. Owners expressed they were often worried or concerned about various elements of ownership, including the possibility of animals carrying the COVID-19 virus, access to veterinary care, caring for their animals, and concerns about their animal experiencing separation-related problems upon their return to work. It was apparent that these concerns often exacerbated stress in participants due to the responsibilities and potential additional financial cost of animal ownership.

Arranging alternative care for an animal while the owner was working outside of the home was often cited as a concern of animal ownership. Many people, primarily dog owners, noted that animal care that was readily available prior to lockdown had since been restricted, and this had resulted in feelings of anxiety. 

Due to financial uncertainty, participants expressed their concern over buying pet food and other necessities or worried about being able to provide healthcare if required and maintaining their animal’s insurance. 

There was also a general sense that interactions with wildlife and frequent contact with nature had a positive impact on mental health. 

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