This may be the key to staying sane during the next lockdown

We’ve all faced a litany of stressful, unexpected problems this year. COVID-19 brought pretty much everyone’s life to a screeching halt back in March, and things have gotten progressively weirder as the year has dragged on.

Between lockdown orders, getting used to social distancing and wearing masks, and the constant cycle of new coronavirus “waves,” it’s safe to say that no one predicted their 2020 was going to be quite as complex as this.

There’s no getting around it. Life is more complicated these days. As such, millions all over the world have been feeling more stressed, anxious, and lonely than ever before. Sometimes, though, comfort can be found in challenging situations from the simplest of sources.

A new study just conducted in the UK has uncovered a refreshingly simple way many people maintained a sense of better well-being through this tumultuous year: turning to their pets for companionship and comfort.

Researchers from the University of York and the University of Lincoln have found that living with a pet during lockdown reduced feelings of isolation and loneliness, decreased psychological stress and anxiety, and promoted a better overall mental state among Britons this year.

It may seem childish, or even foolish, to look to a dog or cat for mental support during these times, but anyone who’s ever had a pet can attest to just how comforting they can be. We all could use an extra set of ears to vent to these days, and our beloved furry companions are always more than happy to listen.

Roughly 6,000 U.K. residents filled out a survey on their experiences during the United Kingdom’s first lockdown period (March 32rd – June 1st) for this study. The vast majority of those individuals had at least one pet. 

Their responses overwhelmingly indicate that their pets have been an invaluable “mental buffer” against lockdown and COVID-19 related stress. More than 90% of respondents said their pet has helped them cope with the emotional toll of lockdown, and 96% believe their pet has helped them stay fit during the lockdown.

Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to matter what type of pet you choose to care for. The strength of the bond between humans and their pets didn’t seem to fluctuate much across various species. That being said, most studied adults had either a dog or cat, while others had fish or a type of small mammal (gerbil, hamster, etc).

“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,” explains lead study author Dr. Elena Ratschen from the Department of Health Sciences University of York, in a release.

“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,” she adds.

In a clear reversal of roles, it seems many pets ended up taking care of their owners during this pandemic. However, study co-author Daniel Mills, a professor in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, also wants to remind readers that pet ownership is a two-way street. A pet won’t bring more mental stability to your life if you neglect to feed or properly care for them.

“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 the lockdown. 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,” he comments.

It’s also worth mentioning that not every single response from participants about their pets was positive. Many surveyed pet owners (68%) said they had periodically felt even more stressed during lockdown due to pet-related worries. For example, some owners were concerned they wouldn’t be able to bring their pet to a vet in the event of an emergency.

So, with that extra support and comfort that a pet provides, also comes more responsibility.

In summation, while these results certainly indicate that a pet can help relieve the pandemic blues, the study’s authors caution against running out to your local pet store or animal shelter if you aren’t already a pet owner. These conclusions were drawn from a sampling of adults who already had a pet they had lived with for some time and had cultivated a bond with. A whole lot more research is needed before a sweeping statement like “buy a pet, and you’ll feel better in lockdown” can be made confidently and accurately.

“While our study showed that having a pet may mitigate some of the detrimental psychological effects of the COVID-19 lockdown, it is important to understand that this finding is unlikely to be of clinical significance and does not warrant any suggestion that people should acquire pets to protect their mental health during the pandemic,” Dr. Ratschen concludes.

Does that mean all of us non-pet-owners won’t find any comfort from animals? Not necessarily, according to the study’s last observation of note. Close to 55% of respondents said they had been routinely engaging in bird watching during lockdown to help calm their nerves.

The full study can be found here, published in PLOS ONE.