Are Dogs or Cats Better for Mental Health During a Lockdown?
All pets can relieve stress. But during a lockdown, are dogs or cats better?
Posted Oct 02, 2020
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people find themselves in a state of mandated lockdown and enforced social isolation. Research shows that such a situation often results in psychological stress, with feelings of depression and loneliness, resulting in a general lowering of mental health status.
It has often been suggested that perhaps having a pet might help to ease some of these problems. A new study, whose lead author is Elena Ratschen of the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York in the United Kingdom, has looked at this issue and also provides some data on the eternal question of whether dogs or cats are more psychologically beneficial as pets.
This study involved a survey of 5,926 U.K. residents over the age of 18 years. It was conducted during the first COVID-19 "lockdown phase," when the British government directed people to stay at home with the only exceptions being travel for essential purchases, essential work travel (and then only if remote work was not possible), medical treatment, and one period of exercise per day (alone or with household members). The total lockdown extended from March 23 to June 1, 2020, after which the government eased the restrictions.
This new research looked at whether pet ownership prevented some of the negative changes in mental health status during the lockdown and perhaps served as a shield against feelings of loneliness. One of the interesting aspects of this study is that it broke down the results not only by whether or not people had a pet, but also by the type (species) of pet.
In this survey, the most common pets were dogs (70 percent) and cats (44 percent). But there were also people who owned other small mammals (like guinea pigs) and some who owned fish, birds, reptiles, and even some horses or ponies.
Measures on the strength of the human-animal bond found that dogs garnered the most affection (except for the small number of horse owners) followed by cats. The affectionate bond to small mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles was significantly lower.
The vast majority of the pet owners perceived their animals to be a source of considerable social support. Animal owners, compared with those who did not own animals, showed smaller decreases in mental health over the lockdown period, and also smaller increases in loneliness during this enforced period of social isolation. This seems to suggest that pet ownership provides a potentially useful defence against the effects of psychological stress associated with lockdown isolation.
There were some stressful aspects associated with having pets during the health-inspired lockdown, in that pet owners do worry about the status of their animals. For example, 68 percent of pet owners reported being worried about their pets because the lockdown might restrict their access to veterinary services. In addition, 41 percent worried that they didn't know who would look after their pet if they became sick and 18 percent were concerned because obtaining pet food had become complicated. Some others were looking ahead, in that 19 percent were worried about how the animals would cope when they eventually could return to work. Nonetheless, nearly all of the participants (99.7 percent) reported that they had not considered giving up their pets since the start of the pandemic.
However, the fact that this study broke down companion animals by species provides the opportunity to look once more at the ever-controversial question of whether there are differences in the way that pet dogs versus cats impact our psychological well-being. Most studies have found that dogs are loved and valued more than cats. Furthermore, there is data that suggests that dogs seem to be better at curing loneliness than cats.
However, in this recent study, the differences appear to be slight, although still favoring dogs. Thus, when asked whether their pet helps them to cope emotionally with the COVID-19 situation, 91 percent of dog owners agree and only slightly less (89 percent) of cat owners agree. When asked whether the pet has a positive effect on their family at this time, there is virtually no difference with 99 percent of dog owners agreeing and 98 percent of cat owners agreeing.
However, there are two areas where there is a large degree of difference between dogs and cats. When asked whether their animals help them to keep fit in this coronavirus situation, 96 percent of dog owners agree while only 32 percent of cat owners agree. The obvious reason here is that dogs still need to be walked, even though we are dealing with a pandemic, while cats do not.
There was one difference which I found surprising and that involved the statement "My animal is the reason I keep in touch with some people or social media groups" where nearly twice as many dog owners agreed that was true compared to cat owners (59 percent versus 35 percent).
In general, these researchers summarize the major conclusion of their study by saying "In our study population, having a companion animal was associated with decreased deterioration in mental health and smaller increases in loneliness since lockdown."
They also downplay the differences between dogs and cats (and other types of animals) by saying that this study "highlighted the role of companion animals as potential social buffers for psychological distress and loneliness, regardless of species."
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Elena Ratschen, Emily Shoesmith, Lion Shahab, Karine Silva, Dimitra Kale, Paul Toner, Catherine Reeve, Daniel S. Mills, (2020). Human-animal relationships and interactions during the Covid-19 lockdown phase in the UK: Investigating links with mental health and loneliness. PLoS ONE 15(9): e0239397. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal. pone.0239397