How is COVID-19 Affecting Relationships with Pets?

Pets seem to have helped people cope with lockdown, but it’s not been easy for the pets, two studies show.

Pets  helped people cope with covid-19, but perhaps due to dog walks (pictured)
A girl walks her dog in Sydney during the pandemic. PhilDeeGee/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

This is a tough year for everyone. How have pets helped us cope with the difficulties of the pandemic so far? And is it a tough year for pets, too? Several research studies are already providing some answers.  

In the relatively early days of the pandemic, which now feel like a decade ago, it became apparent that people would have to spend a lot more time at home, whether out of choice or because a lockdown was imposed. There were reports of people rushing out to adopt pets. And around the world, numerous academics launched studies to find out what was happening. 

Pets help people with tight lockdown in Spain

Spain was badly affected early on, and went into a very strict lockdown in mid-March that was tightly policed. People were only allowed out to get food and medicine, to access healthcare, or to work (if working from home was not possible). They were not even allowed out to exercise until early April, and children were not allowed outside at all until late April

Dog walking was allowed, but only one person at a time was allowed to walk the dog, who had to be on-leash, and walks had to be short. 24% of Spanish homes have a dog, while 11% have a cat. New research to be published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior finds that pets provided people with a lot of support – but in turn, the pets were stressed.

Here's a video of Spanish children being allowed outside for the first time in 6 weeks: 

The online survey was completed by almost 1300 pet owners about 3 weeks into the lockdown period. Most people said their quality of life was worse, with 26.8% saying there was no change, and 11% saying it was better. Most people said their pet had helped them more than usual during the pandemic (27.3% slightly, 28.6% moderately, and 18.4% much more), with a quarter (25%) reporting no change and only a handful of people saying their pet helped them less. 

Dog owners were particularly concerned about dog walks. While the results did not show a significant difference in the number of walks, the amount of time dogs spent outside was much lower during the lockdown compared to normal. The fact that people could still take their dog for a walk could be one reason why dog owners were 53.2% more likely to have the same or better quality of life during the lockdown. 

Dogs were reported to be coping better if their quality of life was still good, whereas they tended to be coping worse if their owner’s quality of life was also worse, if the owner was getting mad at them more often, if they also had behaviour problems that were getting worse, and if the owner had concerns about them. Dogs were more likely to have behaviour problems that were getting worse when everyone in the household was at home more than usual. The most common behaviour problem was barking or other vocalizations, which was worse when the dog got less exercise, and interestingly, also worse the closer the owner perceived their bond with the dog.

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Cat owners’ concerns about the lockdown and their pet were primarily about veterinary care and getting medications for their cat. According to the owners’ reports, cats were less affected by the lockdown, with attention-seeking (36.4%) and being more relaxed (21.7%) the most common changes in behaviour. Cats’ access to outdoors did not change during lockdown (most were indoors-only), and those with multiple cats in the house were more likely to be coping better. However, greater emotional closeness with the person was linked to the cat coping less well. 

The scientists write,

“Our results point to a pattern of increased general behavioral changes, that probably result from household stress and a reduced quality of life, which could lead to greater conflict with the owner, a potential increase in anger and punishment from the owner, and therefore to an increased likelihood of worsening behavior over time.“ 

Overall, the results show that people report receiving a lot of support from their pets during the lockdown, especially in cases where the person’s quality of life was more affected. As well, this support was linked to them interacting more with their pet and feeling closer to their pet. However, for dogs in particular, there were some signs of stress.

Dogs help Australians living alone during lockdown

Dogs, but not cats, helped people who live alone cope with isolation, according to a survey of 384 Australians during the lockdown. 66% of the people in the study were self-isolating or quarantined either by choice or because they were required to do so, while a quarter were essential workers who still went to work.

This study, to be published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, looked at the effects of pet ownership on feelings of loneliness during the pandemic. It also looked at mindfulness, which the researchers defined as, “the ability to keep the mind attending to what is occurring in the present moment”, but it turned out that pet owners were no more likely to be mindful than non-pet owners. However, mindfulness was linked to lower levels of depression.

People who owned a dog were less likely to be lonely than those without a dog, but the number of interactions with a dog did not affect loneliness. Having a cat had no effect on loneliness, but at the same time, people with cats wrote that they liked the companionship they got from their cat. People with dogs said their dog encouraged them to go out for a walk, and also to interact with other people, so this could be responsible for the difference in loneliness scores.

According to written answers, both dogs and cats were said to receive more companionship and attention during the pandemic than normal. Dogs were generally reported to be happier and more relaxed, but some were said to be more clingy. In contrast, although some cats were happier and relaxed, cats were more likely to be ‘put out’ or otherwise unhappy in some way due to their owner being home more.

The authors write,

“This study provided evidence that dog ownership and high levels of mindfulness protect against loneliness during a lockdown, while negative mood states make one more susceptible to it.”

And they also say,

“Our findings suggest that the increased demand for pets observed by Australian animal shelters prior to the COVID-19 lockdown may offer no additional benefit than going outside for a walk or striking up a conversation with neighbours. Results do suggest, however, that dogs might be wonderful catalysts for these activities. Adopting a pet at any time should be a well-thought-out decision, reflecting a commitment to care for and enrich the life of the animal for the duration of its lifetime.”

Effects of the pandemic on people and pets

Both of these studies suggest that the pandemic has had an effect on pets. While it seems that pet owners have found support from their pet beneficial in coping with lockdown, it’s difficult to say how much of that is simply due to having a dog get them out of the house and potentially chatting (hopefully at a safe distance) with other people. 

At the same time, many people report their pets’ behaviour having changed. While in Australia it seemed that dogs could still be taken for walks, during the strict lockdown in Spain dog walks were limited, and this was linked with a detrimental effect on dogs’ behaviour.

Early on, I wrote some tips on how to cope with being at home with your pet more that may still be helpful, and my colleague Dr. Christy Hoffman considered the impacts on the human-dog relationship. I also thought about the likely impact of economic fall-out from the pandemic on pets, while elsewhere another colleague, Jessica Ring, put together some tips on puppy socialization during the pandemic.  

There are many more studies of the effects of the pandemic on pets underway (including some in preprint), and we can expect to learn a lot more about whether pets have helped people and how pets have been affected. Fortunately, while some people had predicted increased relinquishments of pets, this has not happened so far; the economic measures put in place by governments have no doubt helped. 

Did you get a pet during the pandemic?

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Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:

References

Bowen, J., García, E., Darder, P., Argüelles, J., & Fatjó, J. (2020). The effects of the Spanish COVID-19 lockdown on people, their pets and the human-animal bond. Journal of veterinary behavior : clinical applications and research : official journal of : Australian Veterinary Behaviour Interest Group, International Working Dog Breeding Association, 10.1016/j.jveb.2020.05.013. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2020.05.013

Oliva, J. L., & Johnston, K. L. (2020). Puppy love in the time of Corona: Dog ownership protects against loneliness for those living alone during the COVID-19 lockdown. The International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 20764020944195. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020764020944195

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