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Pets, touch, and COVID-19: health benefits from non-human touch through times of stress

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Abstract

During times of social isolation, such as the global COVID-19 pandemic, the social distancing mantras that have been integral to COVID-19 responses position close human-to-human contact, including physical touch, as life threatening. Touch is commonly an overlooked sense, yet studies have shown that touch deprivation reduces survival rates of pre-term babies and contributes to stunted mental and emotional development in institutionalized orphaned humans. For people who experience less social contact, touch deprivation may impact on quality of life. This article explores the notion that human to non-human contact, such as that between animal guardians and their pets, may assist in promoting health and wellbeing when human contact is limited. Use is made of a qualitative research project interviewing people on the role of their pets in creating health. 90% of participants (n = 29/32) identified touch as core to this intersection. Inductive touch themes identified include comfort, relaxation and reciprocity, pointing to the impacts but also the mechanisms by which cross-species touch can create human wellbeing-a relational resource that may counter COVID-19 touch deprivation engendered by prohibition of human-human contact. With over half of the world's population having pets, these relationships may be one of our greatest health-promoting resources at this time.
Journal of Behavioral Economics for Policy, Vol. 4, COVID-19 Special Issue 2, 25-33, 2020
Pets, touch, and COVID-19: health benefits from
non-human touch through times of stress
Janette Young1*, Rhianna Pritchard1, Carmel Nottle1, Helen Banwell1
Abstract
During times of social isolation, such as the global COVID-19 pandemic, the social distancing mantras that have
been integral to COVID-19 responses position close human-to-human contact, including physical touch, as life
threatening. Touch is commonly an overlooked sense, yet studies have shown that touch deprivation reduces
survival rates of pre-term babies and contributes to stunted mental and emotional development in institutionalized
orphaned humans. For people who experience less social contact, touch deprivation may impact on quality of
life. This article explores the notion that human to non-human contact, such as that between animal guardians
and their pets, may assist in promoting health and wellbeing when human contact is limited. Use is made of a
qualitative research project interviewing people on the role of their pets in creating health. 90% of participants (n
= 29/32) identified touch as core to this intersection. Inductive touch themes identified include comfort, relaxation
and reciprocity, pointing to the impacts but also the mechanisms by which cross-species touch can create human
wellbeing – a relational resource that may counter COVID-19 touch deprivation engendered by prohibition of
human-human contact. With over half of the world’s population having pets, these relationships may be one of
our greatest health-promoting resources at this time.
JEL Classification: H51; I1; I3
Keywords
touch — pets — companion animals — COVID-19 — health
1Allied Health and Human Performance, University of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia
*Corresponding author: janette.young@unisa.edu.au
Background
Public health responses seeking to manage the COVID-19
pandemic have imposed isolation and demonized human-to-
human contact in entire societies almost instantly (Pascoe et al.
2020; Wilder-Smith & Freedman 2020). Social distancing, or
more specifically physical distancing, has effectively removed
human-to-human touch from many people’s lives (Pascoe et
al. 2020). However, public health initiatives demanding that
people stay home unless engaging in or providing essential
activities or services have increased the amount of time spent
with non-human family members. Indeed, there has been a
global emptying of animal shelters as people have chosen to
adopt cats and dogs during lockdowns at unforeseen rates
(Frost 2020; Pesce 2020; Thomas 2020). Breeders have also
been inundated, with demand for new puppies quadrupling
some waiting lists (Pesce 2020; Thomas 2020). This paper
considers the role of touch in human lives; the evidence that
touch is beneficial to human wellbeing, including slices of
qualitative data from our research with pet owners illustrating
how contact with non-human others impacts human lives;
and concludes with implications for policy makers within the
unprecedented times of COVID-19.
Pets
Pets were big economic news prior to COVID-19. Globally,
the amount of money being spent on the animals who share
our domestic lives and spaces has been increasing steadily. It
has been anticipated that the worldwide spend on pets could
be over USD 269.9 billion by 2025 (Globenewswire, 2019).
This reflects year-on-year increases in the amounts pet owners
are spending on obtaining and maintaining their pets. For
example, spending in Australia has risen from AUD 8 billion
in 2013 (Animal Medicines Australia (AMA), 2013) to AUD
13 billion within six years (AMA, 2019). In the USA this in-
crease is mirrored, with spending increasing from USD 55.72
billion (Transparency Market Research, 2020) to USD 95.7
billion (American Pet Products Association (APPA) 2020).
From premiumization of food (Phillips-Donaldson, 2019) to
increasing spending on vet care, doggy daycare and specialist
training and nutrition (AMA, 2019), the amount spent on in-
dividual animals seems to be increasing (AMA, 2019). Pets
are also increasingly and overtly seen as family members
(McConnell, Lloyd & Humphrey, 2019) though the economic
manner in which this plays out in individual households varies.
For example, Schwarz, Troyer and Walker (2007) identified
that different household shapes spend money differently on
pets. There is also some evidence that pets are becoming co-
Pets, touch, and COVID-19: health benefits from non-human touch through times of stress — 26/33
consumers (Kylkilahti et al., 2016), with some people making
economic choices, such as where and how to holiday, based
on having pets (Blichfeldt & Sakacova, 2018).
The rush to adopt pets during COVID-19 lockdowns (Mor-
row, 2020; Shine, 2020) suggests that there may even be an
unanticipated increase (i.e. ahead of aforementioned global
projections) in the numbers and amount being spent on pets at
this time. It is unclear, however, how long this phenomenon
of empty shelters, and increased pet numbers will last, and
animal welfare services are concerned that the lockdown rush
may be matched by a wave of pets being relinquished as
people return to work (Webb, 2020).
It has been estimated that over half of the global popu-
lation share their lives with one or more pets (GfK, 2016).
Millions of dogs, cats, fish, birds, reptiles and other species
share our domestic spaces and lives (GfK, 2016; AMA, 2019).
Pet owners are reportedly happier, healthier and even more
likely to live longer (Mubanga et al., 2017). Owning a pet has
been observed to reduce blood pressure, loneliness, anxiety,
fearfulness and generally to contribute to improved wellbe-
ing (Brooks et al, 2018; Hajek & K
¨
onig, 2019). Pets are
emerging as particularly important in the health of some of
the most vulnerable populations, such as people with chronic
mental health conditions (Brooks et.al., 2018) or physical
ill-health (Brooks et.al., 2013 ). There is also evidence of
their health-creating benefits for older people (Gee & Mueller,
2019), children with major illness (Einberg et.al., 2016), and
their health-creating impact can “ripple” through communities
(Wood et al., 2007; Wood et al. 2017). In summary, pets seem
to be particularly important when people are socially isolated
or excluded, providing comfort, companionship, and a sense
of self-worth. These human-animal relationships can soften
the harsh edges of life, feeding resilience. In view of the re-
search that increasingly reveals the impacts on life expectancy
of loneliness and isolation (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010), and
our own reporting on how relationships with pets can protect
some people from suicide (Young et al, 2020), pets are already
emerging as not only being life enhancing, but at times life
saving.
However, to date, little data exists regarding specific bene-
fits that physical contact, touch, with pets may bring – a gap
that in the COVID-19 era of “human: human touch = danger”
is of particular merit.
Touch
Skin is our largest organ, facilitating the sense we call touch.
Avoiding physical contact and prescribing isolation are not
unknown practices, often in response to serious medical con-
ditions (Vottero & Rittenmeyer, 2012). Yet, touch is integral
to human relating and relationships; from close intimate touch
with those we love, to handshakes and air-kisses as formal
greetings between strangers.
Touch is an understudied sense (Fulkerson, 2013), how-
ever, the evidence that exists indicates that touch is crucial for
growth, development and health in humans and other mam-
mals (Barnett, 2005; Feldman, Rosenthanl & Eidelman, 2014;
Field, 2014). Much of the research has focused on the im-
portance of touch in infant development, particularly preterm
babies where findings have shown that human touch improves
both short- and long-term health outcomes (Barnett, 2005;
Field, 1998). In fact, early work in the 1970s showed that
pre-term babies who were held and cuddled, as opposed to
just watered, fed and kept warm, had an increased survival
rate of almost 50% (Field, 1998). Human beings are able to
tell if touch is positive or negative (Hertenstein et al., 2009).
Biochemically, positive touch helps in the release of positive
hormones including dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, all
of which have a role to play in human mood and sense of
wellbeing. Conversely, touch reduces the levels of cortisol
in the body – cortisol being a key (negative feeling inducing)
stress response within the body (Pascoe et al., 2020). Across
various age groups, touch can decrease stress, anxiety and
pain (Olson & Sneed, 1995; Field, 1998), and it is suggested
that touch may be of particular importance for older people
as other senses decline (Field, 2014). With public health
measures of social distancing in response to COVID-19 posi-
tioning human-to-human touch as life threatening, this leads
to questions of whether non-human touch could offer benefits
similar to those noted above.
There is a lack of research exploring the nature of touch
with pets on human lives and wellness. Here, we briefly
present our qualitative research describing and thematically
analyzing the impact of cross-species touch in the lives of
32 ‘older’ people with their pets – a topic focus that has
become dramatically and unexpectedly relevant in 2020. The
findings emerged from a qualitative study exploring how older
people identify and articulate the impact of their pets on their
health. While our study focused on an older cohort, at this
time when entire populations are being mandated to social
distance and stay home (Wilder-Smith & Freedman, 2020),
lifestyle differences between old and young are significantly
reduced. Hence the ways in which pets may mitigate isolation
and touch deprivation are more equitably spread across the
population. Although, as explored in the discussion following,
there are still relatively unique characteristics of some older
lives (e.g. living in care accommodation) that policy makers
need to address.
Our research
Qualitative semi-structured interviews were undertaken with
32 pet owners aged 59 to 83 years; with a mean age 70 years.
Participants were recruited via public calls on radio and snow-
ball sampling, with purposeful sampling employed later into
the recruitment process to ensure that both human and animal
diversity was encompassed. Interviewees’ pets reflected the
patterns of pet ownership globally and in Australia (AMA,
2016; GfK, 2016) of dogs, cats, birds and reptiles (including
one crocodile). The research was approved by the university
human ethics committee and interviews lasted half to one hour
with participants choosing the name they wanted used.
Pets, touch, and COVID-19: health benefits from non-human touch through times of stress — 27/33
From a total of 32 interviewees, over 90% (29 people)
spoke of touch in relation to their pets, mostly unprompted.
This was across gender (19 females and 10 males) and the
age range of the cohort. Two main themes relating to cross-
species touch were identified: wellbeing and reciprocity; with
three subthemes: comfort, relaxation and familiarity. Figure 1
provides a visual summary of the theming and sub theming
process and analysis. Appendix A provides rich qualitative
data from our interviewees. Below is a synopsis of the themes
and their links to COVID-19. Our participants offer insights
into the ways in which touch with other, intimately known,
members of another species can foster wellbeing in the human
members of these dyads. Understandings that in the COVID-
19 era of limited physical contact are particularly resonant.
Figure 1. Theming process and analysis
Wellbeing – comfort and relaxation
Participants frequently described touch-based interactions
with their pets as being comforting or relaxing in a way that
contributed to their overall wellbeing. For our participants,
‘comfort’ is the sense of being somehow cared for by another
being. At times this reference was tied to a specific traumatic
event, such as the death of a human family member or pet.
For example, Anita noted how on the day that she had to put
one of her pets down, her dog appeared both to provide and
seek comfort, touching her, allowing Anita to cuddle her and
staying physically close. For Jen, the trauma was a fall. While
she was lying on the ground, her dog came and lay with her
until she was able to get herself up.
Comfort as relief from mental or physical illness was
another common topic among participants. Many referenced
a seemingly innate ability of pets to just “know” when their
human counterparts weren’t feeling well, providing comfort
via cuddles or pats, or even just sitting on them. Helen even
alluded to the ability of her pets to reduce her chronic pain.
In addition to reporting on the comforting qualities phys-
ical interaction with pets can have, many participants noted
the relaxing or calming effect these contacts provided. Dawn
reported being able to “feel” herself relax while patting an
animal; a kind of self-awareness of bodily relaxation. A key
point made by several participants was that to create a relaxing
touch experience, the animal needed to be the “right kind” of
animal. Participants noted that this related to both individ-
ual personalities within a species, as well as traits between
species. Many participants believed cats to be inherently more
relaxing than dogs, with others stating that patting dogs can
be relaxing (as long as they are the “right kind of dog”). Look-
ing beyond our typical furry pets, Helen compared cats to
fish and birds, believing cats to be particularly soothing, and
conversely that the inability to cuddle a fish or bird reduces
their capacity to relax. Touch with a companion animal can
be relaxing, but it is not just about any animal. Species makes
a difference for some people, and it can be that an individual
animal particularly engenders such feelings. This leads into
the next theme identified in our data as “Reciprocity”.
Reciprocity
While the previous theme focused on human wellbeing, core
to the concept of touch was a notion of reciprocity. That is,
animals may request or encourage their human to touch them,
and they show signs of pleasure from this tactile interaction.
Participants frequently reported perceiving their pets as ‘de-
manding’ touch-based interaction. They also described the
perceived reciprocity of their pet, and the pet’s enjoyment
or dislike of touch-based interaction and how that then fed
into their human experience. For our participants, the giving
and receiving of touch and the visible joy that another being
displays in response to their owner’s touch was inherent to the
pleasure of touch. A cross-species reciprocity and mutuality.
For Jill and Helen, this expression of mutuality is a “look”
their pets give them, that says “I love you”. In comparison,
Jan’s birds express their delight through “happy” sounds and
by nibbling on his ear, and Jen’s frilled-neck lizard closes
his eyes contentedly. Others described mutuality as more
forceful displays for attention, such as in Jan’s case where her
cat would jump onto her husband, tightly wrapping his paws
around the husband’s neck for a cuddle.
Echoing previous comments about what kinds of animals
can bring comfort, people noted differences between animals
that could be touched and would reciprocate touch. Harry the
Sheep would run to greet Di when she got home but wasn’t an
animal she could pick up and cuddle. Although there may be
a general perception that cats are not as engaged with humans
as dogs, Frances identified her cats as more affectionate than
her dogs, head-butting her for attention.
Again, people also noted individual personality differ-
ences within species. Helen discussed her cats and how recip-
rocal cross-species interest in touch can engender a stronger
sense of connection with an individual animal, building greater
rapport than a pet who does not wish to be as affectionate.
This perceived animal enjoyment of human touch is often in-
terpreted as love by their human owners and meshes them into
the human networks of relationships. Pets become “family”,
which our participants described as their “pack”. Through
touch, animals become part of our pack (family); and perhaps
we become part of theirs.
There was a small sub-theme of reciprocity that we termed
“familiarity”. Emotive response to touch from another species
is not confined to what could be seen as mutual touch, but
still centers around the notion of reciprocity and particularly
animals choosing to engage with their humans. For Tom, who
had large aviaries of native Australian birds, having an un-
tamed creature (Tom refused to call his birds “pets”) choosing
to touch him was awe-inspiring and produced an enormous
level of positive emotion for Tom. He repeated his phrase
“they give me joy” multiple times throughout the interview.
In a similar, though perhaps less emotive tone Bob reported
somewhat proudly on how one of his many aviary birds would
touch him, hopping onto his shoulder. For Bob and Tom, the
choice made by an animal to physically engage with them was
hugely pleasurable. Touch itself does not need to be reciprocal
Pets, touch, and COVID-19: health benefits from non-human touch through times of stress — 28/33
Figure 1. Theming process and analysis
to engender human pleasure – animals choosing to engage
with us is a source of wonder, or as Tom insisted “joy”.
Discussion
For our participants, human-animal touch generated positive
feelings of comfort, relaxation and a sense of cross-species
reciprocity. Benefits that are not one way as animal responses
to touch and initiation of touch indicate animals also positively
benefitting. In our analysis to-date, touch is one of the most
pervasive of themes we have identified. Touch emerges as
integral to understandings of the concept of a pet for most
participants, and meshes with that of reciprocity – the giving,
receiving and mutual enjoyment of touch as presented here.
This begins to give insights into the psycho-social mechanisms
by which pets can impact on human wellbeing.
Understandings of reciprocated cross-species touch links
to understandings of individual animal sentience. That is, ani-
mals, like people, are living, breathing others, with individual
interests, styles and preferences. The looseness of describing
what animal group or which individual animal “works” to
create human wellbeing in this intimate touching way perhaps
reflects the disjuncture between what have been largely aca-
demic understandings of individual animal sentience (Nottle
& Young, 2019). While culturally animals are still generally
seen as “not human” and somehow more homogenous than
the human species, in fact our participants’ discourses reveal
the nature of individual personality, likes, dislikes and pref-
erences of animals. Whilst species characteristics may have
influence, presuming species homogeneity e.g. all dogs like to
be walked (Nottle & Young, 2019) is erroneous. Discovering
the uniqueness of the animals that share our domestic lives
is part of the richness that makes having pets important for
wellbeing. The fact that a diversity of species was identified
(cats, dogs, birds even reptiles) as engaging in these reciprocal
touching engagements means that in principle a pet could be
any species that displays interest in relating to and specifi-
cally engaging in reciprocated touch. Good news for allergy
sufferers.
Reciprocity is core to understandings of human friendship
(Barclay, 2013). Akin to human friendship, pet-human rela-
tionships are freely chosen by humans. The “right kind” of
pet seems to be an animal that, like “true friends” (Ohtsubo et
al., 2014) in human-human relationships, shows us attention
(Dunbar & Shultz, 2010) and provides us with timely emo-
tional support (Ohtsubo et al., 2014). These characteristics of
friendship are also noted in the discourses of our participants
across species, and regarding human-animal touch.
The importance of touch for older people has not been
well-investigated. Previously, the two dominant assemblages
of touch that relate to ageing were sexualized and clinical
(Field, 2014; Olson & Sneed, 1995). Cases of sexual assault
in aged care facilities internationally exemplify this assem-
blage of touch and connect directly to the other commonly un-
derstood assemblage regarding touch and aging (Field, 2014).
Clinical touch is frequently invasive and highly personal. In
order to manage the risk of such touch transforming into
sexualized touch, precautions that include both physical (e.g.
gloves, gowns) and emotional barriers (e.g. dispassion) are
often engaged (Olson & Sneed, 1995). Our participants, how-
ever, identified a third model of touch; that of companionable,
caring, and comforting touch – the kind of touch that comes
from lovers, close friends and companions. The hug to say
“hello my special friend”, squashed up into a too-small sofa
with friends for a pizza-and-movies night in; companionable
passing touches of couples. This is the space where our partici-
pants’ human-animal touching engagements exists. Touch that
Pets, touch, and COVID-19: health benefits from non-human touch through times of stress — 29/33
is life-enhancing. In the era of COVID-19, the mantra of “so-
cial distancing” – prescribing a society wide sub-assemblage
of the clinical, risk-infused understanding of touch – cuddly,
comforting touch with pets may be the only companionable
touch possible for many.
Our research provides some preliminary but positive re-
sponses to the concerns raised by Van Bavel et al. (2020)
regarding the negative impacts of social isolation and needs
for intimate relationships in the time of COVID-19 – in par-
ticular, concerns regarding social isolation and intimacy. We
concur that the experiences of COVID, including sudden lock-
downs and broad societal upheaval, job losses and sudden
impoverishment can all be seen as traumatic experiences for
people. Trauma characteristically exacerbates existing neg-
ative human experiences such as pain (Nicol et al., 2016;
McBeth et al., 2007), hence suggestions that pets may be able
to help to ease bodily and psychic ills is important. Concerns
have been expressed that people with chronic health condi-
tions (including mental health) may have these conditions
exacerbated during COVID-19 as they avoid health services
and/or have their conditions intensify due to stress (Torjesen,
2020; Webster, 2020). However, the presence of pets may be
a moderating factor that needs to be recognized and (foreshad-
owing a policy suggestion) signals that ensuring that people
are able to adequately care for their pets merits public funding
and support.
As Van Bavel et al. (2020) note, social distancing as a
policy clashes with human beings’ innate needs to connect
with others. Social connectedness assists people to cope with
stressful times, yet COVID-19 threats and interventions to
keep people mortally safe require physical isolation. While
emotional and social engagement may still be possible and
can be facilitated through the wonders of the internet and
online engagements, for many individuals physical contact
with other humans is crucial to connectedness (V, 2020). Our
research participants point to the manner in which pets may be
bridging the physical intimacy and connection gap for many
people at this time. The shelter-clearing masses may not
have articulated this action as being about substituting human-
human contact during COVID, but the research on touch,
human bio-physiology and the descriptions of our participants
suggest that they may well be interpreting the concept of “pet”
as touch-related too. That they, like the multitudes of humans
before them, are enacting some primeval urge to find comfort,
relaxation and pleasure though human-animal friendships and
engagements (Serpell, 2006). During COVID-19, pets offer
cross-species contact alternatives that our participants show
can occur across a diverse array of species, not just mammals,
but in our cohort birds and reptiles too. This indicates that for
people with allergies or unusual species interests, the potential
for these pets to also be helpful in reducing touch deprivation
stress in the COVID-19 era is possible.
Policy implications
Our explorations have implications for policy makers – specif-
ically in the COVID-19 era, but also to enhance opportunities
for continued human to non-human touch beyond the current
pandemic.
Pets and Healthcare
Facilitating pet connections, be this visits, sleep overs, or even
pet support programs for patients in health care settings such
as hospitals, hospices, and aged care, is indicated. Recog-
nizing and incorporating the benefits of close human-animal
relationships in these settings has implications for both clin-
ical care outcomes and quality of life experiences. Clinical
health care responses are enhanced when the emotional needs
of patients are responded to (Burres et al., 2016; Chen et
al., 2015). Systematic inclusion of animal-assisted support
projects in acute and high-level care is still a novelty, rather
than a recognized and embedded wellbeing facilitator in acute
and high-level care settings (Machova et al., 2019; Freedman,
Parmova & Senior, 2020). Yet the role of touch in facilitat-
ing their wellbeing and mental health in our participants is
clear. Developing managed systems that position emotional
connections (including pet contact) as part of good clinical
health care responses, both now and into the future, are well
indicated for improving quality of life outcomes for patients,
and the staff caring for them (Uglow, 2019).
Pets in Aged Care
Developing systems that facilitate pets in aged settings specif-
ically is needed. A recent systematic review focusing on the
role of pets in the lives of older people mirrored many of the
same positive health findings as in other vulnerable groups
(Gee & Mueller, 2019). However, pet ownership is more
likely to decline with age. For example, while over 60% of
Australian households have a pet, barely 40% of those over
seventy do (AMA, 2019). While some of this difference is
due to positive choices regarding convenience and competing
demands (Chur-Hansen, Winefield & Beckwith, 2008) other
research has revealed that some older people relinquish pet
keeping quite early on in ageing (Bridgman, 2014) for fear of
what will happen to an animal should something happen to
them. And they are right. Retirement villages and residential
aged facilities rarely accommodate people’s pets. Only one
article exploring the impacts of older people being able to
have a personal pet when living in an aged care home has
been identified (Freedman, Parmova & Senior, 2020) reflect-
ing that this is a rare occurrence and that residential aged care
is yet to recognize human-animal relationships as integral to
many people’s lives. Visiting animals may be healthful, happy
entertainment for some people, but they are not pets. Pets
are unique reciprocal relationships that occur across species
boundaries. Had more pets been living with their owners in
aged care when COVID-19 restrictions were applied, a health-
creating resource for their owners and other residents would
have been in-situ.
Pets, touch, and COVID-19: health benefits from non-human touch through times of stress — 30/33
Pets in Society – including protecting pets
Increasingly, research is demonstrating that loneliness has
significant impacts on mental health (Beutel et al., 2017) in-
cluding mortality (Stickey & Koyanagi., 2016). The risk of
loneliness and poor mental health from the isolation, quaran-
tine and social distancing measures imposed as part of the
worldwide community containment response to COVID-19
were reported on rapidly (Sharma, Maheshwari & Bronsther,
2020; Wilder-Smith & Freedman, 2020). For those already ex-
periencing loneliness, the isolating measures during COVID-
19 had a disproportional impact (Armitage & Nellus, 2020).
Public policies that reduce or remove restrictions on pet own-
ership in various forms of accommodation would enable more
people who benefit from pet companionship to do so. This
includes renters (McKee, 2019) and older people who are
often denied pet ownership by a range of retirement accom-
modation. Systemic policy thinking is required in this regard.
Hence policies to support pet owners’ use of public transport
in tandem with accommodation policy changes are important
so that car-less owners are able to take their pets to services
such as vets, dog parks, and just to visit friends. These poli-
cies also need to include considerations of animal needs and
other (non-pet-loving) humans so that the best interests of all
species are kept in view.
Some authors (Van Bavel et al., 2020) have discussed
the negative impact of COVID-19 on intimate relationships.
Exacerbations and increases in the rates of family and do-
mestic violence have already been noted during COVID-19
(Bradbury-Jones & Isham, 2020), and there is a dark side to
the topic of pets in this regard as well, with indicators of pet
abuse and abandonment increases due to COVID-19 being
flagged by some researchers (Fraser, Riggs & Taylor, 2020).
It is important to note this bidirectionality, as policies that
encourage and enable pet ownership at this time need to also
increase vigilance to animal companions. While there is evi-
dence emerging that pets have been a major support to many
owners during COVID-19 (the internet is full of happy, home-
working pet owners posting their pet work colleague photos
online) looking to the future there is a need to investigate
the potentially dark side of cross-species relationships in the
pandemic to identify the kinds of risks that pets may face at
these times, and to include pet protection measures in future
pandemic plans.
Pets and Income Support
Finally, pet support should be considered as part of income
support systems. The role pets play in keeping people healthy
is emerging evermore strongly. In Australia, the introduction
of funds to support wildlife rescue and care post the 2019/20
bushfire season (Elsworthy, Rubbo & Wellauer, 2020), and in
COVID-19 to support zoos, wildlife parks (Macmillan, 2020)
and some animal rescues has occurred without comment. This
suggests public, animal-inclusive responses are becoming
normalised (May et al., 2009). That is, funding to support
animal welfare and care has become incorporated into public
perceptions of expected government support.
This leads to two recommendations – firstly, encourage-
ment of human-wild animal engagements during COVID. En-
abling wildlife parks and zoos to reopen as rapidly and as
safely as possible, and supporting their role in caring for the
animals housed there through public funds maintains a health-
creating human-animal resource for many people. Whale and
bird watching (Curtin, 2009), dolphin encounters (Yerbury &
Boyd, 2018), and zoo tourism (Frost, 2010; Roe, McConney,
& Mansfield, 2014) have all been shown to have positive emo-
tional impacts on human beings. Indicating that the public
funding of animals noted above has implications for not only
animals but also human wellbeing.
Secondly, Donaldson and Kymlicka (2011) have argued
for animal citizenship especially for the animals that we
choose to incorporate into our human societies. Having no
choice in living with us, but providing humans with compan-
ionship, joy and reciprocal love, the interests and rights of
these animals should be enshrined and incorporated into citi-
zenship frameworks that their human companions live within
– including the right to have their needs met through our col-
lective commonwealth.
Conclusion
COVID-19 has dramatically altered our interactions with other
humans, yet one of the most abiding and globalized of hu-
man behaviors – sharing our lives with non-human others –
continues at this time. Now is the time to grasp the value
of cross-species relationships we call pets and develop poli-
cies that recognize and include them in the fabric of law and
policies that frame the societies we share with them.
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... COVID-19-related distress resulted in the United States' population experiencing a doubling in the self-reported rates of poor mental health days (Swaziek & Wozniak, 2020). Echoing findings by Young et al. (2020), this study reveals how cats nurtured their guardians by providing love, a calming presence, and companionship. Participants shared how their cat's jovial spirits and cuddly nature brought humor and a sense of connection when they, as humans, struggled with pandemic-related anxiety, fear, and depression. ...
... A study by the same authors (Bussolari et al., 2021) exploring the relationships between companion dogs and their guardians' during COVID-19 found that dog guardians proclaimed the pandemic solidified their companion dog's place as a family member in their household and verified their feelings that they could not live without the love and comfort shared by their dog. These results mirror those of other studies of household pets that proclaim dogs, cats, horses, and even fish, provide a comforting presence during the pandemic (Applebaum, 2021;Ratschen et al., 2020;Shoesmith et al., 2021;Young et al., 2020). Among the differences in guardian's experiences with their companion animals were those of dog guardians' necessity to attend to their dogs' demand for toileting, exercise and social activity. ...
... Our study extended the findings of Applebaum et al. (2020) by portraying guardians' frustrations with their cats' behaviors, and how they were more likely to joke about how their cats were annoyed by their humans always being at home, thus, disturbing their naps and quite solitude. Interestingly, cat guardians more frequently described their relationship with their companion animals as bringing unconditional love, which was not mentioned in the COVID-19 dog sample (Bussolari et al., 2021); thus, elaborating on findings by Young et al. (2020). ...
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Preprint
Our wellbeing is greatly influenced by our childhood and adolescence, and the relationships that we form during those phases of our development. The human-dog bond started thousands of years ago. The higher prevalence of dog ownership around the world, especially in households including children along with the growing number of people studying dogs most likely explain the growing literature focusing on child-dog interactions. We review the potential effects of child-dog interactions on the physical, mental, and social wellbeing of both species. A scoping search of the SCOPUS database found several hundred documents meeting selection criteria. It allowed us to define the numerous ways in which children and dogs can interact, be it neutral (e.g., sharing a common area), positive (e.g., petting), or negative (e.g., biting). Then, we found evidence for an association between interacting with dogs during childhood and an array of health and mental benefits like stress relief and the development of empathy. Walking a dog and playing with one are perfect physical activity opportunities. Additionally, interacting with a dog can help lower stress and may have a role in the development of empathy. Nonetheless, a number of detrimental outcomes have also been identified in both humans and dogs. Children are the most at-risk population regarding dog bites and dog-borne zoonoses, which may lead to a subsequent fear of dogs or even death. Moreover, pet bereavement is generally inevitable when living with a canine companion and should not be trivialized. In terms of dogs, children sometimes take part in caretaking behaviors toward them which include going on walks. They are opportunities for dogs to relieve themselves outside, but also to exercise and socialize. In contrast, a lack of physical activity can lead to the onset of obesity. Dogs may present greater levels of stress when in the presence of children. Finally, the welfare of assistance, therapy, and free-roaming dogs remains underexplored. Overall, the study of the effects, positive as well as negative, on both species still requires further development. We call for more longitudinal studies and hope for cross-cultural research in the future in order to better understand the impact child-dog interactions might have.
... Perhaps the most surprising aspect of our study is the lack of a significant relationship between stress levels and pet ownership, which has shown a negative correlation in existing academic and popular studies [16,57,58]. The relationship between stress levels and the presence of domestic animals, especially dogs, has been shown in many studies on the basis of both individuals' perceptions and changes in physiological variables [31,32,59,60]. ...
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Restrictions, social isolation, and uncertainty related to the global COVID-19 pandemic have disrupted the ways that parents and children maintain family routines, health, and wellbeing. Companion animals (pets) can be a critical source of comfort during traumatic experiences, although changes to family routines, such as those caused by COVID-19, can also bring about challenges like managing undesirable pet behaviours or pet-human interactions. We aimed to examine the relationship between pet attachment and mental health for both parents and their children during the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia. A total of 1,034 parents living with a child under 18 years and a cat or dog completed an online cross-sectional survey between July and October 2020. Path analysis using multivariate linear regression was conducted to examine associations between objective COVID-19 impacts, subjective worry about COVID-19, human-pet attachment, and mental health. After adjusting for core demographic factors, stronger pet-child attachment was associated with greater child anxiety (parent-reported, p<.001). Parent-pet attachment was not associated with self-reported psychological distress (p=.42), however, parents who reported a strong emotional closeness with their pet reported greater psychological distress (p=.002). Findings highlight the role of pets during times of change and uncertainty. It is possible that families are turning to animals as a source of comfort, during a time when traditional social supports are less accessible. Alternatively, strong pet attachment is likely to reflect high levels of empathy, which might increase vulnerability to psychological distress. Longitudinal evidence is required to delineate the mechanisms underpinning pet attachment and mental health.
... A companion animal may serve as a (partial) solution for loneliness and social distancing. Previous studies demonstrate that interaction and especially petting a companion animal can provide a calming effect and increase positive emotions (Walsh, 2009;Beetz et al., 2012;Bao and Schreer, 2016;Gee et al., 2017;Charry-Sánchez et al., 2018;Young et al., 2020). However, not everyone is willing or able to take care of a pet. ...
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The global COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of both people and animals worldwide. Research conducted during the early phases of the pandemic indicated mixed but generally positive relationships with pets, which were exacerbated both positively and negatively during the early lockdown phases of the pandemic. This longitudinal study of U.S. residents (n = 63) sought to collect novel data related to the perceived attitudes toward, attachment to, and relationship with pets held by participants at two points during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many participants reported a positive relationship with their pets and appreciated the increased amount of time they could spend with them during the pandemic. Some participants noted an increase in negative behaviors, such as separation anxiety, in their pets. This study contributes to a body of research collected within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.
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