Is Your Dog Really Helping You Make It Through the Pandemic?

A large-scale survey shows the psychological benefits of pet ownership.

Posted Dec 16, 2020

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

There has been a lot of discussion in the media about our relationship to pets during the COVID-19 pandemic. There has certainly been a spike in the number of adoptions of dogs and cats from shelters, and some interesting anecdotal information about people claiming that having a pet during these times of relative isolation has had a therapeutic psychological effect. However, there has been very little actual empirical data—at least until now.

MetLife and the market research firm CivicScience conducted an online survey and received responses from a large sample amounting to approximately 1,900 U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 64 years. The respondents were limited to individuals who were employed on a full-time basis. The investigation was aimed at determining our relationship with our pets during this protracted health-related crisis, and the results were just released this month.

During the pandemic, the pet ownership rate among full-time employees in America rose. The data shows that individuals between 18 and 24 years of age were the most likely to have adopted or purchased a dog during the COVID-19 pandemic. They seem to start with a caring and concern about their new pet since this is also the age group that has most frequently purchased pet insurance through their employer.

The cost of having a pet does not appear to be much of a burden financially. Of these pet owners, 63 percent report that most of the upkeep for their pets is spent on food and treats, while 18 percent spent the largest portion on visits to the vet.

The hot question during this period where so many families are self-isolating is whether their pet is helping to improve their owner's mental health. This survey found that 63 percent of the respondents claim that their pet is helping to improve their psychological status and to reduce their stress levels overall. An interesting sidelight is that women are 7 percent more likely to say that their pet is improving their mental health than do their male counterparts.

To express their appreciation for the comfort and companionship these animals provide, 67 percent of the pet owners say that they are planning to get their pet a gift during this holiday season. However, their expenditure on these holiday gifts is not in the Maserati or Emerald necklace range since the vast majority say that they plan on spending between $1 and $49 in total. Nonetheless, the holiday time of year comes with some concerns for 46 percent of these full-time employee pet owners.

Their largest worries include concerns that their pet will eat something poisonous (16 percent), or that they will have restricted access to their veterinarian due to closures (14 percent), or that their pet might have some sort of accident-related emergency (13 percent). As always, there is an asymmetry between the amounts of concern expressed for cats versus dogs. In this survey, the data shows that dog owners are 4 percent more likely to be worried about their pets during the holiday season than are cat owners.

Exactly how are pets helping us to maintain our mental health? These data confirm the results of previous studies BC (before COVID). In these, there had been two factors that always seemed to pop up when people consider how a dog (or a cat) might improve our psychological status.

The main factor (for 50 percent of respondents in this study) is that their pet provides them with companionship and makes them feel less lonely. Obviously, this is a vital concern during the current period of time when our ability to interact with other people is limited, leaving many of us feeling starved for social interactions. The second factor which is found here (and in other surveys) is that having a pet helps to increase their owner's physical activity (for 32 percent of the full-time employees in this study). Once again, there is an asymmetry between dogs and cats since 39 percent of dog owners credit an activity boost to the presence of their pet as opposed to only 26 percent of cat owners.

The idea that having a pet can provide us with a psychological buffer against stress has been talked about quite a bit during the current period of rotating lockdowns and enforced social isolation. It now seems to get some empirical support for the first time, using a substantial number of people who have responded to a survey.

I mentioned these results to a colleague who is a clinical psychologist. She has been dealing with the problems of numerous clients who have been complaining about stress and depression due to regulations that have forced people to remain in their homes, some since the spring. She has had to resort to teletherapy via phone, Skype, Zoom, etc., which means that even the comfort of direct social interaction with a therapist during a face-to-face session has been denied to her patients.

She gave me a weak laugh and asked, "Does that mean that now I can tell my clients that to cope with the psychological stress that the COVID-19 outbreak has triggered, they should fondle a puppy and only call me if symptoms still persist?"

I responded, "Well, at least, unlike an antidepressant medication, there don't seem to be any short or long-term side effects, and these new data say that there may well be benefits."

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