When the pandemic first started gathering momentum and lockdowns were at their peak, a strange symptom swept across the globe as people began experiencing skin hunger. Human contact is a vital ingredient for a healthy, happy life, but when a pandemic forces you into your home it’s not so easy to come by. A new study published in the Journal of Behavioural Economics for Policy has found that there was one savior for some of us during this difficult time: our pets.
A cocktail of lockdown, unemployment, and social isolation is a tough one to swallow, and when we’re stressed many of us yearn for physical reassurance in the form of company and cuddles. So, who better to curl up on the sofa with than a warm, purring cat or a cheerful, fluffy dog? Led by Dr Janette Young, the new study outlined how pets played a crucial role in protecting their owners from the life-endangering realities of social isolation.
The study carried out interviews with 32 pet owners and their results showed that 90 percent of these identified pets as a source of comfort and relaxation. The relationship isn’t always passive either, as many spoke about their pets’ innate ability to just “know” when their hooman was in need of some TLC. Whether real or perceived, the feedback reassured owners feeling distressed, sad, or traumatized. The positive association isn’t exclusive to dogs and cats, with interviewees also mentioning birds, sheep, horses, and reptiles that reciprocated their touch as a source of comfort.
“The feedback we received was that pets themselves seem to get just as much pleasure from the tactile interaction as humans,” said Young in a statement. “Pets seem to be particularly important when people are socially isolated or excluded, providing comfort, companionship, and a sense of self-worth."
Young suggests that the positive effects of interacting with pets should be taken into consideration by policymakers, as those isolated in hospitals, hospices, and aged care facilities could benefit enormously from pet connections with wellbeing animals.
“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.”
It’s perhaps expected then that 2020 saw an upsurge in demand for fostering and adopting animals from shelters, with some breeders finding themselves inundated with interest in buying a new pet. With estimates stating that more than half the global population share their life with animals, it’s arguably a natural state of being to have more variety than just Homo sapiens kicking about your residence, and videos of lockdown challenges with pets is surely all the evidence we need.
If pet ownership isn’t an option for you, there’s always a rich variety of wildlife to attract with the aid of a simple bird feeder, from local and migrating birds to mice and squirrels (check out this physicist's attempt at a squirrel-proof feeder). Depending on where you are, you may even attract something more exotic.
As well as helping us feel less isolated, this study found that pet dogs will try to rescue their owners if they know how to.