By JenniferVorobej, 4th-Year Neuroscience and Mental Health Student
If you are reading this blog in what has been referred to as the dumpster fire of 2020/2021, I’d wager a bet that you’re reading it from home, and, I’m sure it’s probably no surprise to you that I’m writing it from home, with my loyal companion at my side. My Buddy in the picture above has seen me through some tough times, but at eleven years old his love and companionship has never been more needed and appreciated than it has during this trying time of uncertainty and dread. This has been my COVID-19 experience thus far, but does research support the idea that our pooches are contributing to our health and wellness during this difficult time in history?
During the global COVID-19 pandemic, isolation and stress have been said to contribute to poor mental health in society as a whole. Although we’ve turned to our devices to stay connected with work, family and our social circle, there is still the physicality of touch and the closeness of human contact that many of us are missing. Studies have revealed that as many as 90% of us have suffered from some form of pandemic- related emotional distress during this time¹. Lockdowns, uncertain income, and (most noteworthy), isolation, have all played an enormous role in this emotional discomfort.
We may be separated from our friends, family and colleagues, but what about our loyal pups? Oxytocin, a hormone often referred to as the ‘love hormone’ for its ability to make us feel good and feel bonded to others, is released when we spend time with our beloved dogs¹. This bond we feel for with our furry friends is a part of what makes them feel like family and one of the reasons they can be so reassuring during times of loneliness and stress. The sense of connection to another, even if that ‘other’ is a four-legged family member, can help isolated individuals feel less alone³. Sometimes, the distraction your pet provides is enough to alleviate some feelings of distress and loneliness brought on by the isolation experienced during the pandemic¹.
Research findings have repeatedly pointed to the importance of a social support system in all aspects of health and wellness⁴, and our companion canines have had to step up and fill this role for so many of us. This is especially true for those of us that live alone and have been subjected to multiple lockdowns and prolonged periods of isolation throughout the pandemic.
But what about the added responsibility and obligation of dog ownership? Not just the added mouth to feed, but are there other stressors related to caring for your pup that might negate or cancel out the positive effects of our furry friends? Turns out that when asked, there was a small number of people that felt their pups added to the stress they’ve experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some citing the extra costs of caring for their companion as a concern given the reduction in income so many people experienced during this time. Others, worried that the possibility of illness and the potential necessity of being hospitalized due to illness would leave their beloved pooch without suitable care¹.
A third group of people reported that dog ownership during the pandemic has had no influence on their stress levels. This was a small group of participants, and several people from this group were impacted far less by the pandemic due to lifestyle or location. Others found that the positive and negative effects of dog ownership during the pandemic cancelled each other out to amount to no impact in total¹.
Click the image above to read more about research on the impact of pets during the pandemic
Although some believed their dog companions had no impact on their mental health and others felt that dog ownership increased their stress, the great majority of people responding to the survey reported that they believed their dogs were an asset to their well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. The benefits they reported experiencing through their connection with their four-legged, calming house mates were many. The overall distraction they provided from the negativity of the media during the pandemic served to lessen at least some of the stress, isolation and depression that so many have experienced during COVID-19¹.
I think it’s important to mention that there could be other factors at play for dog owners. It could be that dog owners have increased physical activity because of daily walks and activity with their pet, and maybe this increased activity brought on by dog ownership was the primary factor leading to feelings of increased wellness². Whatever the reason, if your pooch can play even a small role in getting you through a tough time, then I say enjoy your canine kisses and spoil that pup and yourself with love.
Bussolari, C., Currin-McCulloch, J., Packman, W., Kogan, L., & Erdman, P. (2021). “I Couldn’t Have Asked for a Better Quarantine Partner!”: Experiences with Companion Dogs during Covid-19. Animals, 11(2), 330. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11020330
Powell, L., Edwards, K. M., Michael, S., McGreevy, P., Bauman, A., Guastella, A. J., … Stamatakis, E. (2020). Effects of Human–Dog Interactions on Salivary Oxytocin Concentrations and Heart Rate Variability: A Four-Condition Cross-Over Trial. Anthrozoös, 33(1), 37–52. https://doi.org/10.1080/08927936.2020.1694310
Endo, K., Yamasaki, S., Ando, S., Kikusui, T., Mogi, K., Nagasawa, M., … Nishida, A. (2020). Dog and Cat Ownership Predicts Adolescents’ Mental Well-Being: A Population-Based Longitudinal Study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(3), 884. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17030884
Carr, E. C. J., Norris, J. M., Alix Hayden, K., Pater, R., & Wallace, J. E. (2020). A Scoping Review of the Health and Social Benefits of Dog Ownership for People Who Have Chronic Pain. Anthrozoös, 33(2), 207–224. https://doi.org/10.1080/08927936.2020.1719761