COVID-19 is bringing people together with their four-legged friends like never before, according to a survey led in part by a Washington State University human-animal interaction expert.
Phyllis Erdman, a professor in the WSU College of Education, and a team of collaborators from Colorado State University, the University of San Francisco and Palo Alto University, conducted a large survey of dog owners to find out how social isolation and other stressors associated with COVID-19 are influencing the bond between people and their pets.
Of the 4,105 dog owners surveyed, the vast majority reported their pets are playing a critical role in helping reduce feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness. Many of the respondents also reported their pets were helping them maintain a regular schedule, cope with uncertainty, be compassionate towards themselves and find purpose in their lives.
“There was just an overall theme of hope,” Erdman said. “It wasn’t ‘Oh no, now I’m with this animal 24/7 and I have to take care of it!’ Rather, most people viewed their relationship with their pets as a reason to get up in the morning and as an opportunity for companionship during a lonely time.”
The researchers conducted their survey online between March 30 and May 1. Most of the participants were females living in cities that were currently recommending or mandating that residents stay at home, with only essential services remaining open.
The majority of respondents reported having less social support from other humans during the COVID-19 pandemic than before and that their bond with their animal was strengthened as a result.
Specifically, more than 70% of respondents reported spending more overall time with their dog as a result of COVID-19, and 42.5% said they were walking their dogs more frequently.
When asked how their dogs have influenced some common negative emotions associated with COVID-19, nearly 70% of respondents said having their pet around decreased feelings of loneliness and isolation. More than half of the participants also reported their dogs helped ease depression and anxiety and provided purpose/meaning to their lives during self-isolation.
“It seemed to us that it was a win-win for the people and for the dogs,” said Lori Kogan, a professor of clinical sciences at Colorado State University. “The dogs are getting all these great additional walks and play time and the humans are getting a key source of social support.”
The survey participants were also asked about their concerns related to taking care of their dogs during COVID-19.
Interestingly, the researchers found people were more concerned about the availability of food, medication and veterinary care than being able to afford them.
“Concerns about whether or not the vet will see my pet even though it is not an emergency, or will there be enough food and medication for my dog tended to outweigh the financial considerations,” said Wendy Packman, professor emeritus at Palo Alto University. “People tended to see it as an availability issue, very much like our own human concerns over being able to find enough food and hand sanitizer.”
One of the more concerning statistics involved designating a caretaker for their dog if the pet owner became ill. Despite concern for their dogs in the case of an emergency, only 40% of the respondents had actually identified a friend or family member to take care of an animal in the event they got sick.
As Lori Kogan explained, “There seemed to be a gap between peoples’ concern about who will take care of their pet in the event they get sick and actually reaching out and getting that commitment.”
Cori Bussolari, associate professor in Counseling Psychology at the University of San Francisco suggested, “If you have that concern then we really encourage you to be proactive in setting up those relationships.”
Another point the researchers wanted to emphasize is the importance of treating pets well as restrictions on social distancing lift.
“We are spending more time with our dogs during COVID-19 than we were before and this makes a big impression on our pets,” Erdman said. “We want to encourage people to value these important relationships and to continue spending time with their dogs as life returns to normal.”