How our pets helped us during the pandemic

Sometimes it’s an image of a sweet face with doleful eyes staring up at the camera. Other times, it’s a silly expression or some contortionist pose by a fuzzy feline (or German shepherd!). Every now and then, it’s a home video of some goofy behavior that pet’s person can’t help but capture and share.

And you know what? Chuckling at the silly antics of the fur babies of my colleagues — most of whom I’ve never met in person — immediately zaps my stress. And there’s an added plus: I now have a new social group I didn’t have before the pandemic — fellow cat lovers who share my passion for fluff.

Many of us have relied on our pets to brighten our moods and ease tension during the steaming pressure cooker of the past two years. Research on the pet-human bond has boomed during the pandemic, and studies show that pet owners often say their pet has reduced loneliness, provided much-needed emotional support and had a positive overall impact on their health.

But when it comes to definitive science about the role pets have played during the pandemic, the message is still murky.

“It’s kind of a mixed bag, honestly. Pet owners perceive a positive impact, but when you actually measure their stress levels or symptoms of depression, you don’t see any effect,” said developmental scientist Megan Mueller, who co-directs the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction and leads the Tufts Pets and Well-Being Lab.

A number of studies found favorable health outcomes for dog owners who are more likely to walk frequently and to spend time outside, she said: “Which kind of makes sense, right?”

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But other studies found pet owners had higher stress and more depression than non-pet owners. That might be explained by an individual’s unique circumstances, said Mueller, who is currently prepping a systematic review of pandemic pet research for publication.

“If you’re someone living alone who is socially isolated during the pandemic, having a pet might be very important,” she said. “If you’re a parent of kids and you’re juggling work, virtual school and childcare, you may not have the same social interaction needs and the burden of care for a pet might be higher.”

Pet care in certain times

Socioeconomic status plays a role in the human-pet scenario as well, she added. Many lower-income families caught in the economic uncertainty of the past two years may not have had the means to provide veterinary and other needed care for their animal — much less themselves and their families.

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“So while pets might provide a source of emotional support, caring for a pet without some of the usual financial support you typically have could be stressful or challenging during a pandemic,” she said.

New research on the role of pets during the pandemic is being published daily, Mueller said, and she’s hopeful that science will be able to tease out some of the nuances of how our pets helped us during these unprecedented times.

In the final analysis, Mueller asked, is it really fair to ask our furry friends to ease our anxiety and depression while providing companionship? After all, a gold-standard treatment for mental disorders such as depression is talk therapy, which no matter how comforting they are, our furry friends cannot offer.

“I do wonder sometimes if we’re asking too much of our pets,” she said. “My hypothesis is we’re talking about a huge event of unparalleled proportions, and the stressors of the pandemic may have been too much to be overcome by having a pet, at least for some people.

“And as much as we really want to look at objective outcomes, in some ways perception is important as well,” she said. “So I don’t know that we should discount people’s own perceptions of how much their pets have done for them.”

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