Pets and the Pandemic

As the Covid-19 pandemic wears on, one thing is clear: many of us are turning to our pets for emotional support.

Around 45% of households in the UK were estimated to own a pet, but since the outbreak of Covid-19, pet ownership levels have peaked to an unprecedented high of 62% in 2021/2022. This was most likely a result of the increased time spent at home, and the result of people seeking animal companionship to tackle feelings of isolation and anxiety.

The impact they’ve had on our mental health and wellbeing

In a recent survey of 1,199 participants, 85% of dog owners and 75% of cat owners believed their pets had an extremely or moderately positive effect. Socially distanced connections with other people, eg during dog walks, were also shown to have been beneficial. Despite being physically isolated from friends, family and colleagues, having a pet meant never truly being alone. Companion animals not only helped us take our minds off negative thoughts associated with the pandemic, but also helped provide a much-needed source of purpose. I think many of us would agree that it’s almost impossible to imagine not having been with our pets during lockdown.

While the benefits of interacting with animals are well known – from lowering blood pressure to reducing stress – this relationship is complex, and findings are still inconclusive as to how our animal friends have provided so much additional comfort during this difficult time. It might be that owning animals such as dogs and horses encourage physical activity, or research has also suggested that pets may be beneficial for mental health and wellbeing due to the attachment and companionship provided by the animal.

Pandemic puppies

Lockdowns during the pandemic may have unintentionally promoted the sub-optimal puppy purchasing behaviour, with many people deciding to purchase or adopt a puppy for the first time. Some of these buying behaviours unfortunately heightened the threats to puppies being sourced from poor welfare environments, bred or raised on puppy farms, and illegally imported to meet demand.

Research done by the Royal Veterinary College, London, unveils that ‘pandemic puppy’ owners, when compared with 2019 owners, were found to be:
– Less likely to seek out a breeder that performed health testing on their breeding dogs
– Less likely to view their puppy in person, and see their puppy with their littermates prior to purchase
– More likely to be motivated to purchase a dog to improve their own/their family’s mental wellbeing
– More likely to pay a deposit without seeing the puppy
– More likely to be first-time owners

However, introducing a pet to a household in Covid times can have repercussions or create unexpected difficulties. Many are finding that their new acquisition is more trouble to look after than they had anticipated.

Many conversations with trainers and behaviouralists have revealed that their waiting lists are swollen with desperate clients, and the problems they are being asked to address are far more complex than those before the pandemic. Census numbers at rescue shelters are climbing once again, as people realise what they should have known all along: that living with a dog is a lot harder than meets the eye, and that Instagram photos of dogs doing cute things have little connection to the actual responsibility of caring for an intelligent, emotionally intricate animal with complex social needs.

Another serious problem for pandemic dogs is the transition of humans back towards a more normal life. Many dogs who have become accustomed to having their humans around 24/7 would have to suddenly deal with extended periods of isolation, these behaviours being labelled as ‘separation anxiety’. Though, it isn’t that dogs need to learn how to be alone; dogs, like humans, know perfectly well how, and need considerable time alone. They just need help remembering and help to understand that it is perfectly okay.

While there is no doubt that pets have played a huge part in being an immensely supportive presence during difficult times, it is important to ensure that the welfare of our animals is prioritised. Using services such as day care and dog walking will also increase chances for dogs to socialise and reduce the time they are left alone. All these efforts will ultimately minimise the risk of the dog needing to be rehomed or, worst case scenario, abandoned.

Sienna, Head Girl

Photo credit:
Gabriella Clare Marino