According to some estimates, more than half of people in the world own pets, and that’s good news for their health, especially now. Researchers, and possibly animal owners, know that having an animal physical and mental health benefits. During the pandemic, when many have been confined to their homes without friends and family for weeks or even months, the physical comfort of a pet could be particularly beneficial.
“Suddenly it’s like touching is deadly,” said Janette Young, a health sciences lecturer at the University of South Australia. “Caring and companion contact with another being is truly vital for us as human beings.” Not everyone is a hug, but touch is important for health. Positive human contact experiences are necessary for healthy emotional and behavioral development in infants and can reduce stress and anxiety in humans of all ages.
But because of measures like social distance, human contact can be difficult to find, and social isolation and feelings of loneliness have increased in adults since March.
But pets could help make up for the lack of human contact, which could explain why the demand for pets has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. There is reason to believe that pets can alleviate some of the stress and loneliness resulting from public health restrictions – and provide that much-needed physical contact.
Young is researching the relationships between pets and in his latest study published in the Journal of Behavioral Economics for PolicyShe and her colleagues write that the comfort that comes from touching a pet could inform policies to promote health and wellness during the pandemic and beyond.
When Young interviewed participants in his study (before the coronavirus pandemic), 29 of 32 of them uninvitedly spoke about the importance of physical contact with their pets. “When you stop and think about it, it’s kinda obvious,” she says. “The animals come to us and they ask for contact and they want to engage with us. It’s like an endorsement of us as people.”
Now that human contact has become somewhat of a health hazard, she says pets could step in. “Somehow they have to work for people, so many people have,” she says. And the evidence that animals can benefit human health – and perhaps health risks associated with loneliness – grows. “We know loneliness is a problem,” Young said. “And animals can moderate that.”
This is what researchers in the UK found.In a survey of 5,926 people, almost 90% had at least one pet and 86.5% of pet owners said their the animals provided emotional support during the first locking. While the survey did not include a large number of people who do not own pets, pet owners reported smaller declines in mental health and smaller increases in loneliness compared to those who don’t have pets.
Human-animal relationships are not always beneficial. “It’s a lot more nuanced than that,” said Layla Esposito, program director in the Child Development and Behavior Directorate and the Pediatric Growth and Nutrition Directorate at NICHD whose work involves research on human-animal interaction.
Petting a dog for a few minutes won’t provide the same benefits as cuddling a longtime pet, but scientists are still trying to figure out which types of human-animal interactions are most helpful for the health and well-being of animals. people, as well as animals.
But Young believes the research on relationships with pets so far points to policies that could improve health and well-being. In their recent study, Young and his colleagues write that human-animal relationships could “bridge the gap between physical intimacy and connection for many people today.” They suggest that pet support programs in some healthcare settings could improve patient quality of life and clinical outcomes.
“We know that loneliness is a major risk factor for a variety of health and psychological issues. We also know that interaction with animals is something that helps relieve loneliness,” Esposito said.
But if nothing else, pets can provide comfort during stressful times. “There was this big explosion in pet adoption during Covid,” Esposito said. “I think this is a testament to the ability of humans and animals to bond, get pleasure, and have positive relationships at this strange time in our existence when human contact is discouraged.”