Pet dogs may be helping people cope during the COVID-19 crisis, according to findings from a study published in the journal PLOS One. When surveyed during the pandemic, dog owners reported fewer depression symptoms and a stronger sense of social support compared to people without dogs.
Pet owners often describe a deep emotional bond with their pets, noting the supportive role that their animals play in their everyday lives. While many scientific studies have reported the positive mental health benefits of pet ownership, some studies have suggested the opposite — that owning a pet can actually increase anxiety.
A research team led by Francois Martin saw an opportunity to re-examine the pet-human relationship by surveying pet owners during the COVID-19 pandemic. This unique time period would allow them to explore how pets might help people cope during times of increased stress, depression, and loneliness.
Focusing on dog ownership, the researchers recruited 768 dog owners and 767 potential dog owners who were living in the United States. Dog owners were people who had at least one dog and no other type of pet. Potential dog owners were people who did not currently have a pet dog but were very interested in getting one.
The researchers matched the participants in the two groups by age, sex, location, and by the extent that they felt the pandemic was negatively impacting their finances, emotions, health, and lifestyle. All participants completed an online survey that included measures of generalized anxiety, depression, happiness, and perceived social support from friends, family, and significant others.
According to the survey responses, social support was especially important for participants’ mental health. Respondents who reported low levels of social support had depression scores that were nearly three times higher than those of participants with high levels of support. Similarly, their anxiety scores were about two and a half times higher.
Next, when the researchers compared the two groups, it was found that dog owners reported significantly higher social support from their loved ones compared to people without dogs. Dog owners also reported significantly lower depression scores. “Taken together,” the study authors say, “our results suggest that dog ownership may have provided people with a stronger sense of social support, which in turn may have helped buffer some of the negative psychological impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Interestingly, dog owners and non-dog owners did not differ in their levels of anxiety or happiness. This seems to conflict with previous survey findings where pet owners have reported that their animals help them manage their anxiety and emotionally cope during the pandemic. Martin and his team say that these positive benefits of pet ownership are likely real, but they may be overshadowed by the many other lifestyle factors that impact mental health — such as sleep, exercise, and dietary habits. It could also be that the positive effects of dog ownership may simply be too small to detect when up against major traumatic events like job loss or a pandemic.
“In all likelihood, people are genuine when they report how much they love their dogs and how much comfort their dogs bring them. However, the dog effect may not be strong enough to completely counterbalance the traumatic impact of major life events such as the loss of a job, a divorce, or, in our case, the COVID-19 pandemic,” the study authors say.
Martin and his colleagues further note that the mental health benefits of pet ownership might be most evident among people at greater risk, for example, those in social isolation. Most of the participants in their study reported high social support from loved ones which may have provided a “buffering effect” from the distress of the COVID crisis. They say that future research should aim attention at people with lower levels of social support.
The study, “Depression, anxiety, and happiness in dog owners and potential dog owners during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States”, was authored by Francois Martin, Katherine E. Bachert, LeAnn Snow, Hsiao-Wei Tu, Julien Belahbib, and Sandra A. Lyn.