People who are strongly attached to their pets were more likely to suffer mental health problems during the Covid-19 lockdown than those who are less attached, new research from Queen’s University Belfast has revealed.
In January 2021, researchers from the School of Psychology at Queen’s surveyed 143 pet owners and 103 people who did not own pets, to explore whether animals helped to reduce depression, stress and feelings of isolation during lockdown.
Of the pet owners, 62 per cent owned dogs and 28 per cent owned cats. They completed the 23 item Lexington Attachment to Pets Scale, which is commonly used to measure the bond between humans and animals.
The experts found that pets did not improve the mental health of their owners during lockdown, although dog owners were more attached to their pets than cat owners.
The study highlighted that the participants most likely to be depressed were female, had children at home and fewer social connections. The strongest predictor of mental well-being was level of attachment to a pet. Specifically, people who were most attached to their pet dogs or cats had the highest levels of depression and loneliness and the lowest levels of happiness.
Dr Deborah Wells, a Reader in the School of Psychology at Queen’s, led the research study, which is due to be published in the journal Anthrozoös.
Lockdown during a global pandemic is a time when mental health is known to be poor. As researchers, we were very interested to explore whether pet ownership helped with well-being at this time.
Our results may seem surprising, as many people consider pets to be good for our psychological health. The findings from this study, however, almost fly in the face of this, and point to stronger companion animal attachment being associated with poorer mental health during the second period of national lockdown in the United Kingdom.
In short, we found that those who were most attached to their pets were more likely to be depressed or lonely. There could be many reasons for this, for example, people who were already depressed or feeling lonely may have acquired a pet and become strongly attached as a sort of ‘self-help’ strategy. Alternatively, people who are strongly attached to their pets might simply have a personality type that predisposes them to poorer mental well-being.
The study highlights that there is emotional vulnerability in those who are highly attached to their pets. This is an area of research worthy of further study as it could help us to develop strategies to boost mental well-being and address mental health problems as we emerge from the pandemic.”
Dr Deborah Wells, Reader, School of Psychology, Queen’s University Belfast