Owning pets during the pandemic didn’t eliminate stress and loneliness

If you feel like you bonded with your pet during the pandemic, you’re not alone.

Cat and dog owners in the United States gradually grew closer to their pets during the first two years of COVID-19. But these furry friends didn’t ease their humans’ overall stress or loneliness, despite owners citing their pets’ positive influences, researchers report April 26 in PLOS ONE.

“The one very clear message is that the human-animal relationship is very complicated,” says veterinary epidemiologist Hsin-Yi Weng of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

When the coronavirus outbreak began, Weng and colleagues recognized it as an unfortunate but unique opportunity to explore the dynamics of pet ownership during a large-scale, disruptive event. The team launched a survey around mid-2020 asking about people’s stress, loneliness and relationships with their pets. Participants reflected on their emotions before the pandemic (February 2020) and during lockdown (April to June 2020). Follow-up surveys in September 2020 and quarterly throughout 2021 captured information about the reopening and recovery phases, respectively.

Analyzing responses from more than 4,200 individuals, the team found that cat and dog owners felt they steadily bonded with their pets between the pre-pandemic and recovery phases. Spending more time at home and isolated from other people might explain those strengthened relationships, the researchers say.

But pets’ effects on mental health were a little fuzzier. Although the authors expected pets to buffer stress and loneliness, people with fluffy companions had similar loneliness levels — and sometimes even higher stress levels — compared with non–pet owners (SN: 2/20/15). The results did suggest though that having a pet buffered the loneliness related to romantic relationships, or lack thereof.

On average, people without pets reported the lowest amounts of stress while cat owners had the highest. Affording veterinary and everyday care, especially during lockdown, may have contributed to pet owners’ stress, the team suggests.

“There are two sides of having a pet,” Weng says. While they provide companionship, pets also add extra responsibilities.

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