Summary: During the COVID-19 pandemic, US dog and cat owners became closer to their pets, though pet ownership did not consistently alleviate stress and loneliness. The relationship between mental health and pet ownership was complex, with dog owners experiencing a greater reduction in stress and loneliness compared to cat owners and non-pet owners.
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, both dog and cat owners in the US grew closer to their pets.
- Dog owners experienced a greater reduction in stress and loneliness during the reopening and recovery periods compared to cat owners and non-pet owners.
- Pet ownership did not consistently mitigate stress and loneliness during the pandemic, but pet owners reported less loneliness specifically related to romantic relationships compared to non-pet owners.
A new analysis suggests that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, US dog and cat owners became closer to their pets, and a complex relationship unfolded between pet ownership, stress, and loneliness.
Niwako Ogata and Hsin-Yi Weng of Purdue University, US, and their colleague present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on April 26, 2023.
The COVID-19 pandemic provides a unique setting to explore pet-owner relationships and potential links between pet ownership and mental health. Several prior studies have investigated these topics in the context of the pandemic, but with limited scope.
Ogata and Weng conducted a series of surveys to capture the dynamics of dog and cat ownership in the USA – prior to the pandemic, during the lockdown period of April to June 2020, the reopening of September to December 2020, and a recovery period from January to December 2021.
The surveys included questions related to participants’ closeness to the pet they felt most attached to, stress and loneliness levels, demographics, housing situation, personality, and other potentially relevant factors. Participants included 1,266 people with dogs and cats, 1,186 with only dogs, 1,128 with only cats, and 657 with no pets.
Statistical analysis of the survey responses showed that both dog and cat owners grew closer to their pets during the study period. However, links between pet ownership and mental health were more complex.
Compared to cat owners and participants without pets, dog owners experienced greater reduction of stress and loneliness during the reopening and recovery periods.
Nonetheless, the researchers did not find statistically sound evidence that pet ownership eased participants’ stress and loneliness levels during the pandemic, and cat owners generally had more stress and loneliness than other participants.
However, separating out different types of loneliness showed that, compared to non-pet owners, pet owners reported less loneliness specifically related to romantic relationships.
Further analysis suggests that the different results seen for dog versus cat owners may be explained by differences in the pet-owner relationship between these two groups.
The researchers will continue collecting similar data through 2023 in order to capture any further changes in pet-owner relationships, stress, and loneliness.
The authors add: “People felt closer toward their pets during the COVID-19 pandemic even though the pet ownership did not mitigate stress and loneliness. Dog ownership and cat ownership acted differently on mental health, but the difference between them could be partially explained away by the owner-pet relationship.”
Funding: This study, in whole, is funded by the Morris Animal Foundation (Grant number: D22FE-041, received by HYW; URL of the funder website: https://www.morrisanimalfoundation.org/). The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
About this stress and mental health research news
Original Research: Open access.
“Temporal patterns of owner-pet relationship, stress, and loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effect of pet ownership on mental health: A longitudinal survey” by Hsin-Yi Weng et al. PLOS ONE
Temporal patterns of owner-pet relationship, stress, and loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effect of pet ownership on mental health: A longitudinal survey
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected us in numerous ways and may consequently impact our relationships with pet dogs and cats.
We conducted a longitudinal survey to examine the temporal patterns of owner-pet relationship, stress, and loneliness during four phases of the pandemic: 1) pre-pandemic (February 2020), 2) lockdown (April to June 2020), 3) reopening (September to December 2020), and 4) recovery (January 2021 to December 2021). We also investigated the effect of pet ownership on stress and loneliness, by considering a set of a priori causal assumptions.
In addition, we hypothesized that the differences in the levels of stress and loneliness between dog and cat ownerships were mediated by the owner-pet relationship.
A total of 4,237 participants (657 non-pet owners, 1,761 dog owners, and 1,819 cat owners) completed between one and six surveys. Overall, the closeness in the relationship between owners and their pets increased with time during the study period.
We also observed that dog owners consistently showed larger decreases in the levels of stress and loneliness than cat and non-pet owners. However, after adjusting for confounders, the findings did not support a mitigating effect of pet ownership.
Pet ownership did not alleviate stress, social loneliness resulting from a lack of friendships or workplace relationships, or emotional loneliness due to deficiencies in family relationships. Pet owners, however, reported a lower degree of emotional loneliness caused by deficits in romantic relationships than non-pet owners.
Our results also indicated that the differences in stress and loneliness levels between dog and cat ownerships were partially explained by the owner-pet relationship, and once this was accounted for, the differences between them reduced. In summary, this study highlights the dynamic effects of COVID-19 on owner-pet relationship and mental health.
It also shows the complexity of the association between pet ownership and mental health, partially mediated by owner-pet relationships.