RESEARCH: Animals have played an important health role during the COVID-19 pandemic

A 2020 research study indicates that animals, mainly pets, have played an important health role during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers at the University of South Australia studied the effects of animals during the pandemic when human-to-human contact was restricted to reduce the spread of the virus. 

Researcher Dr. Janette Young said, “To fill the void of loneliness and provide a buffer against stress, there has been a global upsurge in people adopting dogs and cats from animal shelters during lockdowns. Breeders have also been inundated with demands for puppies quadrupling some waiting lists.”

It is estimated that more than half the global population share their lives with one or more pets. The health benefits have been widely reported, but little data exists regarding the specific benefits that pets bring to humans in terms of touch. 

“Touch is an understudied sense,” Dr. Young said, “but existing evidence indicates it is crucial for growth, development, and health, as well as reducing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. It is also thought that touch may be particularly important for older people as other senses decline.”

The researchers interviewed 32 people. More than 90% said that touching and stroking their pets made them feel relaxed and comforted. They said that their pets seemed to have an innate ability to just “know” when they weren’t feeling well and they wanted to get physically close to their owners.

The people interviewed mentioned dogs and cats, but also birds, sheep, horses, and even reptiles, such as pet lizards.

“In the era of COVID-19, social distancing, sudden lockdowns, and societal upheaval, our pets may be the only living beings that many people are able to touch and draw comfort from,” Dr. Young said. “Humans have an innate need to connect with others but in the absence of human touch, pets are helping to fill this void. They need to be considered from a policy angle, therefore, to help mitigate some of the mental and physical stressors that people are experiencing during this time.”

Dr. Young says hospitals, hospices, and aged care facilities should encourage pet connections with residents. Older people and people who are anxious during the COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, could consider having a pet to touch, have cuddles, go for walks, and for companionship. 

The number of participants in the research study was small and the researchers would like to interview a greater number of people and do more research. The researchers maintain that pets have a crucial role in times when human-to-human contact can be life endangering. 

Journal Reference: Janette Young, Rhianna Pritchard, Carmel Nottle, Helen Banwell. Pets, touch, and COVID-19: health benefits from non-human touch through times of stress. Journal of Behavioral Economics for Policy, 2020; Vol. 4, COVID-19 Special Issue 2, 25-33; and “Pets, touch and COVID-19: Why our furry friends are lifesavers.” ScienceDaily, 1 December 2020.

Photographer: Martina Nicolls


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