A study published in the journal Anthrozoös suggests that pet ownership is tied to improved well-being during the pandemic, but only among people with low resilience. For people with high levels of resilience, owning a pet was actually linked to lower well-being during the pandemic.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people were spending more time at home, and as a result, more time with their pets. This offered researchers a unique opportunity to explore the link between pet ownership and mental health.
Existing research has suggested that pet owners enjoy certain mental health benefits, like reduced loneliness and increased well-being and some evidence suggests that pet ownership may have helped people cope during the pandemic. But these findings are not always consistent, and sometimes the opposite effect is found — with pet owners reporting lower well-being during the pandemic compared to non-pet owners.
Study authors Ece Beren Barklam and Fatima Maria Felisberti conducted two studies to explore the link between pet ownership and well-being during the pandemic while considering factors that might influence this relationship. For example, the researchers proposed that people with low levels of optimism and resilience might be most likely to see increased well-being with pet ownership.
“It is commonly believed that pets are good for humans, but the research evidence is mixed,” explained Barklam, a PhD student and lecturer in psychology at Kingston University London. “It is likely that there are certain factors, such as humans’ individual characteristics and different elements of human-pet relationships, that play an important role in the relationship between pet ownership and well-being.”
“Moreover, the initial data was collected in May 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic had created a unique situation where many people spent more time at home with their pets due to the required social isolation. This created a unique opportunity to investigate whether pet ownership would be positively linked to well-being in highly unusual adverse circumstances and what role certain individual characteristics could play in that relationship.”
Barklam and Felisberti distributed two surveys at different time points during the COVID-19 pandemic. The surveys included measures of pet attachment and psychological measures like loneliness, well-being, and resilience. The first survey was distributed in May 2020, among an international sample of 495 adults. During this time, most countries were in strict lockdown. Most of the respondents (70%) were pet owners — 53% had dogs, 55% had cats, and 22% had other pets.
While 95% of pet owners said that their pets offered them emotional comfort, and 88% said their pets had a positive impact on their lives during the pandemic, pet owners did not differ from non-pet owners in their well-being scores. However, among respondents with low resilience, having a pet was tied to higher positive feelings. Those with low resilience disagreed with statements such as “I tend to bounce back quickly after hard times.”
Higher scores on the subscale measuring general attachment to their pet was also tied to more positive feelings. Conversely, among respondents with high resilience, pet ownership was tied to higher negative feelings.
“In terms of well-being, only certain people might benefit from having pets, depending on their personal characteristics,” Barklam told PsyPost. “The findings suggest that resilience is an important factor, and people who have low levels of resilience might particularly benefit from having a pet and forming a healthy bond with their pet.”
The second survey was distributed in September 2021 among a sample of 243 UK participants. At this time, there were no lockdown measures in place in the UK. More than half the sample (57%) were pet owners, and most owned dogs (60%) or cats (60%).
Again, pet owners did not differ in well-being or loneliness compared to non-pet owners. However, resilience again played a moderating role. For pet owners with low resilience, higher scores on the pet attachment subscale measuring animal rights/animal welfare was associated with greater well-being and fewer negative feelings. But for pet owners with high resilience, higher scores for animal rights/animal welfare was associated with lower well-being and more negative feelings.
“Surprisingly, a type of pet attachment was directly linked to higher levels of loneliness and lower levels of resilience and well-being,” Barklam explained. “The findings suggest that the attachment type called ‘people substituting,’ which suggests that the pet plays a more central role than humans in the owner’s life, might not be favorable.”
The study results provide evidence of how individual characteristics of pet owners can influence the link between pet ownership and well-being. “Pet ownership and some types of pet attachment might be protective factors and particularly beneficial for those who are less resilient during times of isolation, uncertainty, or stress,” the study authors wrote. On the other hand, owning a pet might be unfavorable for people with high resilience.
“The results showed that among people with high levels of resilience, those who had pets and those who were more attached to their pets had lower well-being than those who did not have pets and those who were less attached to their pets,” Barklam said. “This was unexpected, and more research is required to understand how different forms and degrees of resilience might influence the relationship between pet ownership and well-being.”
The authors said that future studies should explore how different types of resilience might influence the link between pet ownership and well-being. Longitudinal research and studies among people experiencing isolation may shed further light on how pets might influence well-being.
The study, “Pet Ownership and Wellbeing During the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Importance of Resilience and Attachment to Pets,” was authored by Ece Beren Barklam and Fatima Maria Felisberti.