Coronavirus & Pets: Animals Help Reduce Anxiety, Studies Show



The coronavirus outbreak has forced tens of millions of Americans to work, keep up with schoolwork and entertain themselves from within the walls of their own homes. A majority of governors have issued stay-at-home orders asking families to remain at home unless they work at an “essential” business or need to restock on food and other supplies.

According to a recent survey, families who are cooped up with pets may be faring much better than households without animals. The Human-Animal Bond Research Institute and Nationwide Insurance say research has shown that having a pet can reduce stress and help people feel less isolated. There is also evidence that people who own pets have healthier hearts and live more active lifestyles.

Many Americans have already reached this conclusion, based on recent statistics. The data management system PetPoint, which tracks data from about 1,200 shelters across the country, says the number of pets being adopted and fostered is up by 700 percent compared to 2019, Fox News reports. According to the CDC, there is no evidence to suggest pets will spread COVID-19.

Here’s what you need to know.

Survey: A Majority of Respondents Said Pets Help Reduce Loneliness

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The coronavirus outbreak has raised concerns about the short and long-term impact of social isolation on mental health. Crisis hotlines across the country have seen a spike in calls since the pandemic reached the United States, NBC News reports. The Centers for Disease Control has a page dedicated to dealing with stress and strategies for helping family members cope with the crisis.

The Human Animal Bond Research Institute says having a dog or cat around could help alleviate some of this anxiety. The organization, along with Mars Petcare, conducted a national survey to determine whether respondents viewed pet ownership as being beneficial for mental health. About 72 percent of those surveyed already owned pets.

The Institute found 85 percent of those surveyed believed that owning a pet can reduce loneliness. 76 percent of respondents said human-pet interactions can help address feelings of social isolation. Among just the respondents who already owned pets, 80 percent said their animal made them feel less lonely. 54 percent said their pet is beneficial in helping them connect with other people.

Medical Studies Suggest Pets Reduce Blood Pressure & Help the Body Respond Better to Stress

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The coronavirus has gyms shut down and sports teams have been sidelined. That has made getting enough exercise difficult. Steven Feldman, the executive director of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HBRI), told Heavy, “Studies show that dog owners are more likely to get their recommended levels of exercise, and that’s more important than ever right now. You can maintain social distancing and still get outside and walk with your dog. It’s good for you and good for them.”

Increased exercise has been cited as one of the reasons why pet owners tend to be healthier than those without pets. The Human-Animal Bond Research Institute cited two medical studies as the basis for its argument that owning an animal can help reduce cardiovascular risks and stress.

A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine analyzed cardiovascular reactivity to stress among 240 married couples. About half of the participants owned a pet. The 2002 study found that people with pets had lower blood pressures and lower heart rates, according to a summary of the results. Pet owners also recovered quicker after experiencing a stressful situation.

The Medical Journal of Australia published a study in 1992 that compared nearly 5,000 non-pet owners to 784 people who did own pets. Researchers analyzed blood pressure, plasma cholesterol and triglyceride values. According to the summary, the participants had similar body mass indexes and smoking habits and their economic statuses were about the same as well. But the pet owners had “lower levels of accepted risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and this was not explicable on the basis of cigarette smoking, diet, body mass index or socioeconomic profile.”

The HBRI also cited the 2005 Michigan Behavioral Risk Factor survey that looked at exercise levels. That study found that dog owners were far more likely to walk for at least 150 minutes per week compared to people without dogs.

More People Are Adopting Pets Nationwide Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak

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Animal shelters and rescues have seen an uptick in pet adoptions in the weeks since the coronavirus pandemic reached the United States, as referenced at the beginning of this article. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals president Matt Bershadker told the Washington Post, “There’s no question that animals provide incredible comfort and companionship, especially during times of crisis, and they certainly appreciate the attention, so we encourage people to continue to adopt or temporarily foster animals in need.”

Animal Care Centers of NYC spokeswoman Katy Hansen says the organization has seen a major increase in fostering applications since the outbreak began. She told the New York Times that she often meets people who are reluctant to adopt an animal because they are worried they do not spend enough time at home in order to care for it. But the pandemic has changed that and fostering is a compromise. “You are bringing a pet into your home and there is not a long-term commitment. You are seeing how it would work.”

But shelters are also concerned about the potential of seeing a lot of animals returned once the immediate crisis passes. Animal Haven shelter executive director Tiffany A. Lacey told the Daily Beast, “It’s not about someone making a rash decision but the economy and financial situations of people if it becomes hard to keep a roof over your head and food on the table. Tough decisions will be made, and they will often sadly include animals.”

Human Animal Bond Research Institute executive director Steven Feldman cautioned that despite the mental health benefits of having an animal, owners do need to pause and consider whether they have the capacity to take care of a dog or cat. “If you are thinking about adopting a pet, make sure you do your homework. Consider the time, lifestyle and cost factors,” Feldman told Heavy. “Remember, the more time and effort you put into the relationship with a pet, the greater the reward, including the health benefits of the human-animal bond.”

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