COVID-19 lockdown : pets can maintaining better mental health and reducing loneliness

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Sharing a home with a pet appeared to act as a buffer against psychological stress during lockdown, a new survey shows.

Most people who took part in the research perceived their pets to be a source of considerable support during the lockdown period. (23 March—1 June, 2020)

The study – from the University of York and the University of Lincoln – found that having a pet was linked to maintaining better mental health and reducing loneliness.

Around 90 percent of the 6,000 participants who were from the UK had at least one pet.

The strength of the human-animal bond did not differ significantly between species with the most common pets being cats and dogs followed by small mammals and fish.

More than 90 percent of respondents said their pet helped them cope emotionally with the lockdown and 96 percent said their pet helped keep them fit and active.

However, 68 percent of pet owners reported having been worried about their animals during lockdown, for example due to restrictions on access to veterinary care and exercise or because they wouldn’t know who would look after their pet if they fell ill.

Lead author, Dr. Elena Ratschen from the Department of Health Sciences University of York said: “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.

“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.

“It will be important to ensure that pet owners are appropriately supported in caring for their pet during the pandemic.”

Co-author, Professor Daniel Mills from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln said: “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 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.”

Dr. Ratschen added: “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.”

More than 40% of UK households are estimated to own at least one pet.

The study also showed that the most popular interaction with animals that were not pets was birdwatching.

Almost 55 percent of people surveyed reported watching and feeding birds in their garden.

The paper, “Human-animal relationships and interactions during the COVID-19 lockdown phase in the UK: investigating links with mental health and loneliness” is published in the journal, PLOS ONE.


Loneliness is a risk factor for morbidity and mortality (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010; Luo et al., 2012) and is reported as a particularly pertinent problem in the elderly (Ong et al., 2016). A report from a 2018 study demonstrated that 50% of Australians ‘sometimes’ or ‘always’ felt alone; however, this number was found to be higher in younger compared to older adults and equal across genders (Lim, 2018).

Importantly, loneliness was also a risk factor for depression and anxiety symptoms (Lim, 2018). With this as the ‘baseline’ level of loneliness in Australia, it is important to consider the effect of a pandemic-induced ‘lockdown’, such as that which was declared on 23 March 2020 in Australia.

Mental health clinicians have already published on the importance of social connection during the current COVID-19 pandemic, with many countries across the globe experiencing a government-enforced lockdown (Ng et al., 2020). Studies from China and Turkey have demonstrated increased depression and anxiety, particularly in females (Ӧzdin & Ӧzdin, 2020; Wang et al., 2020). However, Banerjee and Rai (2020) posit that the way forward is to be at peace with oneself during these times of solitude. Indeed, researchers have demonstrated mindfulness – the ability to keep the mind attending to what is occurring in the present moment, to have a negative association with depression, anxiety and stress and a positive association with well-being (e.g. Cash & Whittingham, 2010; Soysa & Wilcomb, 2015).

Researchers are also starting to establish a link between high levels of mindfulness and low levels of loneliness (e.g. Clear et al., 2020; Jin et al., 2020). In fact, the idea that loneliness stems from being alone is contrary to the ancient philosophy on which mindfulness is based, whereby ‘mindfulness’ practices bring awareness of our connectedness to all other living things (Nhat Hanh, 2001).

Indeed, a recent meta-analytic investigation demonstrated a significant association between mindfulness and connectedness to nature (Schutte & Malouff, 2018). However, when people are living alone and not being mindful, they are at risk of becoming lonely.

Pets might enhance mindfulness via being an extension of nature or by more actively encouraging their owners into the present moment by engaging them in play, walks/time outside or simply by stimulating their senses in a tactile way (e.g., owners stroking their fur).

Qualitative reports from dog owners demonstrated enhanced awareness and mindfulness as a core theme resulting from interacting with their dogs (Garcia, 2020), and mindful interaction with dogs has been shown to encourage a sense of connection to self and others (Jackson-Grossblat et al., 2016).

Dog ownership (but not cat ownership) has been associated with reduced loneliness and social isolation in adults living alone (Hajek & König, 2019), and studies have demonstrated that dog acquisition reduces loneliness (Antonacopoulos, 2017; Powell et al., 2019).

Furthermore, qualitative insights from a Must Love Dogs intervention programme for older Australians living alone suggest that interactions with dogs can increase positive affect in a group setting (Papotto & Oliva, 2019). However, Powell et al. (2019) found that when the level of education was adjusted for in their analyses, the effects of dog acquisition on loneliness were nullified, and a systematic review by Gilbey and Tani (2015) has cast doubt on the convincingness of the extant quantitative evidence that companion animals alleviate loneliness, expressing a need for more research to be conducted under ‘controlled’ conditions with a consideration for the time participants actually spend with their animal.

One such study, a randomised controlled trial comparing a mindfulness intervention group, a dog interaction group and a control group, was able to demonstrate that similar reductions in state anxiety and depression levels could be gained from both the mindfulness intervention and dog interaction groups, as compared to the control group (Shearer et al., 2016).

This might suggest that dog interactions and mindfulness practices have similar effects on the brain/mind and can therefore bring about similar positive mental health benefits.

This study aims to capture the experience of the COVID-19 lockdown in an Australian population living alone. Specifically, the study will investigate whether pet owners living alone demonstrate higher levels of mindfulness as compared to non-owners living alone while adjusting for previous mindfulness training experiences.

Pet ownership, mindfulness, mood, age and gender will also be explored for their ability to predict loneliness. Furthermore, in the cohort who own a dog or a cat, the study will investigate whether mindfulness mediates the relationship between the intensity of pet interactions and loneliness. The nature of the human–pet relationship during a time of heightened and extended life stress such as that experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown period is unknown; hence, the study will utilise a mixed-methods approach to capture this unique experience.

Discussion
The aim of this study was to capture the experience of the COVID-19 lockdown in an Australian population living alone, with and without a dog or a cat. The hypothesis that pet owners would score higher on mindfulness than non-owners was not supported. While there was a difference in mindfulness scores between cat owners and non-owners, it was the non-owners who demonstrated significantly higher levels, and no differences were observed between non-owners and dog owners.

The hypothesis that mindfulness would mediate the relationship between more frequent pet interactions and loneliness was also not supported.

The finding that pet ownership offers no benefits in terms of mindfulness is in contrast to findings supporting an association between mindfulness and pet ownership (Garcia, 2020), and mindfulness and connectedness to nature (Schutte & Malouff, 2018). However, the notion that animals are an extension of nature and therefore connection to our pets is akin to connectedness to nature may not work for domesticated animals.

Perhaps interacting with animals in a human, technology-heavy environment has blocked our ability to have a sense of connection to nature through them. The findings that cat owners are less mindful than non-owners might be explained by the fact that more cats than dogs were shown to be a source of worry for their owners (Table 6) and were less predictable in terms of their reaction to their owners being home more, with many cats being ‘put out’ or disturbed by this (Table 7).

Alternatively, it is possible that cat owners are just inherently less mindful. Similar differences have been observed with other traits (e.g. ‘cat people’ have been shown to score significantly higher on neuroticism than ‘dog people’; Gosling et al., 2010).

This is further supported by the differences in how cats and dogs were reported to improve the mental state/well-being of their owners (Table 6), with more cat owners endorsing the mood enhancement aspect of this theme, as compared to the ‘greater sense of purpose, motivation and routine’ aspect.

While dog interactions were not found to reduce loneliness scores, dog ownership was found to significantly protect against loneliness (using both the 1-item and 3-item measures), while negative mood states, specifically depression (and stress using the 3-item measure), predicted it.

The loneliness buffering effect of dog ownership is in line with the previous literature (Antonacopoulos, 2017; Hajek & König, 2019); however, unlike the study by Antonacopoulos, this study was able to demonstrate this using both the 3-item UCLA Loneliness Scale and the single-item measure, albeit more strongly with the single-item measure.

This difference might be explained by the fact that the three items of the 3-item UCLA Loneliness Scales differed across the two studies. However, other differences were observed when using the different measures, for example, when predicting scores on the 3-item measure with only dog ownership, cat ownership and mindfulness scores in the model (Model 1, Table 4), mindfulness was a significant predictor of loneliness; however, in Model 2, with the addition of depression and stress scores, it no longer was.

In contrast, when predicting scores on the 1-item measure, mindfulness continued to be a predictor at Step 2, but stress was not. This suggests that although the loneliness measures demonstrated high convergent validity, they may not be tapping into the exact same construct and highlights the importance of considering whether traditional loneliness scales are appropriate for evaluating the loneliness reducing power of pets.

The association between increased mindfulness and decreased loneliness is consistent with emerging literature (Clear et al., 2020; Jin et al., 2020), and the association between loneliness and mood is consistent with findings reported by Lim (2018).

Also in line with findings by Lim (2018), neither of the loneliness measures were found to be associated with gender; however, contrary to Lim’s findings, neither was age. This might reflect that the impact of a lockdown on loneliness affects people of all ages equally, rather than these feelings being associated with any one particular stage of life.

It is interesting that while dog interactions were not found to reduce loneliness scores, simply owning a dog did appear to buffer the effects of loneliness in some way. Qualitative insights offered in this study suggest that this is by the pet acting as a companion through the lockdown experience.

For dog owners more so than cat owners, an important aspect of this was the existence of a physical connection, that is, being able to touch and feel another living creature in the house.

Both dog and cat owners expressed the importance of the pet as an excuse to talk out loud, which has been shown to improve concentration and performance on cognitive tasks (Kirkham et al., 2012; Lupyan & Swingley, 2012) and may also play an important role in well-being during solitude.

While owning a cat was not found to predict lower loneliness scores, it is interesting that the most commonly endorsed theme for cat owners was that their pet makes isolation easier/reduces loneliness/increases companionship, similar to what dog owners expressed.

This might suggest a lack of sensitivity in the loneliness scale in adequately measuring this construct as it relates to pet owners.

However, dog owners also endorsed two themes that were unique to them: that their dogs encouraged them to take them for a walk and offered them an opportunity to socialise with other people. Walking has been shown to positively impact mood and well-being (Hallam et al., 2018) and offers opportunity for connection with others, as has been previously reported (Campbell et al., 2016); therefore, this may explain why these differences in the prediction of loneliness scores were observed in dog versus cat owners. Hence, it would be interesting for future studies to investigate this in countries where going out for walks during the lockdown was prohibited.

Finally, this study sought to understand how the COVID-19 lockdown impacted pets themselves.

The most commonly perceived way both dogs and cats were affected was that they received more companionship or attention. However, this was closely followed by little to no difference for dogs and a change in emotion or behaviour in cats.

While dogs generally became happier/more relaxed or more clingy/needy, cats experienced a greater variety of changes, including being ‘put-out’, happier, more needy, demanding, affectionate or playful.

In light of these changes, it is not surprising that common across both dog and cat owners was concern for their pet post-isolation, when owners will start to return to their normal routines. Future studies should investigate not only the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown but also the ripple effects of such an event when things return to ‘normal’.

The strength of this study is that data were collected during the period of the government-enforced lockdown in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing the construct of social isolation to be largely controlled for in a sample of people living alone.

However, the study was limited by the fact that approximately one-quarter of our sample were deemed ‘essential workers’ and were therefore still potentially able to interact with others in a face-to-face manner in their workplace.

The social media recruitment strategy used in this study has been demonstrated to be effective for collecting rapid survey data in a short period time during health crises such as COVID-19 (Ali et al., 2020); however, it is also commonly biased by a higher number of female responders, as was observed in our sample.

Further, the proposed mediation models would benefit from replication using a larger sample as it is unclear whether the non-significant mediation is genuine or a statistical artefact due to suppression effects and inadequate power. Finally, this study was limited by the fact that the dog interactions scale did not reach an acceptable level of reliability.

This may suggest that the items comprising this scale are not accurately capturing owner–dog interactions during a period of lockdown and/or the factor structure of this scale may need to be re-evaluated.

In conclusion, this study provided evidence that dog ownership and high levels of mindfulness protect against loneliness during a lockdown, while negative mood states make one more susceptible to it. While dog ownership does not appear to influence mindfulness levels, its buffering effect against loneliness might be via opportunities to keep a routine involving leaving the house to walk and potentially interact with other dog owners, which are opportunities not associated with being a cat owner.

Despite cat ownership not being a significant predictor of loneliness scores, qualitative insights suggest that both dog and cat owners perceived their experience of the lockdown to have been made easier by having a pet to share it with.

However, our findings suggest that the increased demand for pets observed by Australian animal shelters prior to the COVID-19 lockdown (Roy, 2020) may offer no additional benefit than going outside for a walk or striking up a conversation with neighbours. Results do suggest, however, that dogs might be wonderful catalysts for these activities.

Adopting a pet at any time should be a well-thought-out decision, reflecting a commitment to care for and enrich the life of the animal for the duration of its lifetime. This study adds to the current literature on the experience on loneliness during a lockdown, as well as the impact of pet ownership for Australians living alone.

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