During Covid-19 lockdowns, our furry friends become lifesavers

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  • Pets are known to give us unconditional love and boost our physical and mental well-being
  • A recent study has hailed them as heroes as they helped stave off loneliness during the pandemic
  • Researchers suggest that pets be included in hospitals and aged care facilities

If you’re living with a pet, you’ll know that our furry friends come with a ton of benefits, including companionship, love, and affection.

But there’s an even greater benefit they have been providing during the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. These months had a huge negative impact on our social lives, denying many of us the comfort of physical touch.

Implications of lockdowns

According to a new study by researchers from the University of South Australia, pets have literally become lifesavers in millions of homes, where, in the absence of human-to-human contact, they have stepped in to provide comfort via cuddles, pats and a constant physical presence.

The researchers, whose findings are published in the Journal of Behavioural Economics for Policy, believe governments need to acknowledge the significant role pets play, particularly considering the serious mental health implications lockdowns are having on millions of people worldwide because of limited social contact and, consequently, physical interaction.

"In a year when human contact has been so limited and people have been deprived of touch, the health impacts on our quality of life have been enormous," lead author Dr Janette Young said in a news release by the institution.

"To fill the void of loneliness and provide a buffer against stress, there has been a global upsurge in people adopting dogs and cats from animal shelters during lockdowns. Breeders have also been inundated, with demands for puppies quadrupling some waiting lists," she added, noting that physical touch has largely been taken for granted, and even overlooked, until this year.

A mutual connection

The study results were based on interviews with 32 people, with more than 90% saying that touching their pets both comforted and relaxed them. They also reported that their pets appeared to need it as well.

Most of the respondents referenced their pet’s innate ability to just "know" when their human counterparts were feeling down, and therefore proceeded to get physically close to them.

"The feedback we received was that pets themselves seem to get just as much pleasure from the tactile interaction as humans," Young said.

Limited studies on pets and physical touch

According to the study, it is estimated that more than 50% of people worldwide share their lives with one or more pets.

Other health benefits of having a pet, such as helping to improve your mood; relieving your stress; stabilising your blood pressure levels; and encouraging physical activity are widely reported, but the authors of the recent study pointed to the scarcity of data on the specific benefits that pets bring to humans in terms of touch.

"Pets seem to be particularly important when people are socially isolated or excluded, providing comfort, companionship and a sense of self-worth," said Young.

"Touch is an understudied sense, but existing evidence indicates it is crucial for growth, development and health, as well as reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body.

“It is also thought that touch may be particularly important for older people as other senses decline," she explained.

Health24 previously reported that those who are genetically predisposed to being more affectionate may especially be grappling with "skin hunger" (caused by a lack of physical touch) during lockdowns. 

Not just cats and dogs

Interestingly, the study cites other pets apart from cats and dogs, such as birds, sheep, horses and even reptiles who reciprocate touch.

"Animals, like people, are living, breathing others, with individual interests, styles and preferences. While culturally, animals are not seen as 'human', they are still seen as individuals with likes and dislikes.

"In the era of Covid-19, physical distancing, sudden lockdowns and societal upheaval, our pets may be the only living beings that many people are able to touch and draw comfort from.

"Humans have an innate need to connect with others, but in the absence of human touch, pets are helping to fill this void,” Young said.

Benefits for the aged

The lead author said that having pets therefore needs to be considered from a policy angle, in order to help mitigate some of the mental and physical stressors that people are experiencing during the pandemic.

How exactly should this happen? Well, according to Young, hospitals, hospices, and aged care facilities should encourage pet connections with patients and residents.

"Residential aged care is yet to recognise the value of human-animal relationships. Had more pets been living with their owners in aged care when Covid-19 restrictions were applied, it could have helped people immeasurably," she said.

READ | A silver lining for foster, adopted pets – and their people – during coronavirus pandemic

READ | Owning a dog may lower risk of early death

READ | Ever wondered what your cat is trying to tell you?

Image: Getty/Grace Cary

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