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Stress

Is Your Pet a Pandemic Stress Buster?

Psychology explains why pets help reduce the effects of pandemic stress.

Recently I wrote about the importance of social support for coping with pandemic stress, loneliness, and isolation. I encouraged readers to stay connected with family and friends and to be someone’s “social support rainbow during the pandemic storm.” But I failed to mention that psychological research suggests another important source of social support: our companion animals (pets).

If you're like the majority of pet owners, you consider your companion animal a family member or friend. That makes them a potential source of emotional social support that may prevent or reduce symptoms of pandemic stress. Psychologists note that the emotional bond between people and their pets is particularly therapeutic because it’s nonjudgmental. Your pet won’t judge you for wearing sweatpants 24/7, being grumpy, or having that extra glass of wine.

Have you ever thought that your relationship with your pet is one of the best in your life? Pets provide simple, supportive, confidential support without criticism, advice, or conflict. They provide unconditional positive regard and make us feel needed, wanted, and valued. For example, as most dog owners will attest, their well-cared-for dogs adore them and are oblivious to their faults. And cat owners will agree that the attention of the often-aloof cat can make you feel quite special.

Gene Courter, used with permission.
I love my dog. Does she love me or am I just a big Milkbone to her?
Source: Gene Courter, used with permission.

Research suggests that we may have to anthropomorphize our pets (ascribe human characteristics to them) to maximize their social supportive health effects. "She loves her Papa!" said my partner as our cat followed him around and rubbed on his legs. As Radar O'Reilly on M*A*S*H once said, "Dogs are people too." While I do sometimes wonder if my dog's affection for me is due to a Pavlovian association between me and the dog treats I so freely dispense, I choose to believe she loves me as I love her.

Even if you don't anthropomorphize your pet, they may still provide some stress-relieving benefits. Does caring for your pet provide a sense of routine? Uncertainty and unpredictability are known to heighten the negative effects of stressors. Pets provide a certainty and predictability to lives and routines disrupted by the pandemic. My dog, for example, isn’t only a “watchdog” in the security sense, but in the sense that she knows when it’s time for her meals and demands feeding at designated times.

Does petting, holding, cuddling, or watching your companion animal calm you? Research suggests that these actions release the bonding hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is linked to increased positive feelings and decreased heart rates and blood pressure.

Companion animals can also provide touch and affection, or what psychologists call “contact comfort.” This contact comfort is especially valuable since pandemic-related social distancing has reduced hugs and other types of human social touch. According to studies, interacting with companion animals can reduce loneliness (feelings of social disconnection) and compensate for reduced human social connection.

Gene Courter, used with permission.
My cat is hilarious.
Source: Gene Courter, used with permission.

Does your pet make you smile, laugh, and play? Studies find that laughter weakens the association between stressful events and subsequent stress symptoms. Pets can promote our play, smiling, and laughter all of which can reduce the effects of stress by releasing “feel-good” hormones and neurotransmitters and reducing heart rates and blood pressure. Companion animals can also contribute to our mental and physical health by increasing our mobility, exercise, and our contact with nature.

Is your pet a catalyst for human social interaction that helps connect you to friends, family, or neighbors? Sharing about our pets and asking about or commenting on people’s pets, is a conduit for human social connection and support.

Sure, our companion animals can be a source of pandemic stress when we can’t get their favorite food or the food needed for their special diets, when the pandemic makes getting or paying for veterinary care challenging, and if they’re in poor health or die. And yes, pets can be a pain-in-the-hindquarters because they require care and tending. But when all is said and done, our animal companions are pandemic rainbows during this pandemic storm.

References

Brooks, H. L., Rushton, K., Lovell, K., Bee, P., Walker, L., Grant, L., & Rogers, A. (2018). The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: A systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence. BMC Psychiatry, 18, 1-12.

Gee, N. R., Mueller, M. K., & Curl, A. L. (2017). Human–animal interaction and older adults: An overview. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1416.

Hoy-Gerlach, J., Rauktis, M., & Newhill, C. (2020). (Non-human) Animal companionship: A crucial support for people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Society Register, 4, 109-120.

Hui Gan, G. Z., Hill, A. M., Yeung, P., Keesing, S., & Netto, J. A. (2019). Pet ownership and its influence on mental health in older adults. Aging & Mental Health, 1-8.

McConnell, A. R., Paige Lloyd, E., & Humphrey, B. T. (2019). We Are family: Viewing pets as family members improves wellbeing. Anthrozoös, 32, 459-470.

Nieforth, L. O., & O'Haire, M. E. (2020). The role of pets in managing uncertainty from COVID-19. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12, S245-S246.

Stanley, I. H., Conwell, Y., Bowen, C., & Van Orden, K. A. (2014). Pet ownership may attenuate loneliness among older adult primary care patients who live alone. Aging & Mental Health, 18, 394–399.

Zander-Schellenberg, T., Collins, I. M., Miché, M., Guttmann, C., Lieb, R., & Wahl, K. (2020). Does laughing have a stress-buffering effect in daily life? An intensive longitudinal study. Plos One, 15(7), e0235851.

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