COVID-19: How pets have helped us cope

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17 July 2020
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We were promised flying cars by 2020, but the first half of the year has instead brought the world to a standstill. The novel coronavirus has grounded us like nothing else in living memory, forcing parents, kids, and family pets to spend much more time together.

A combination of health worries, lifestyle changes, and financial pressures has created a second health crisis, which continues to bubble beneath the surface – one concerning mental health. A study by Healthspan found that by May, anxiety levels were up by 50 per cent among UK adults.

To cope with increased isolation, it seems Britain has been getting its social fix from a different kind of companion – one with four legs. In fact, the UK is even facing a puppy shortage as so many of us seek comfort in a furry friend.

Long walks and family morale: The pet effect

With the announcement of lockdown on March 23, the patterns of everyday life were disrupted, so people began creating new rituals to boost their well-being.

In place of the commute, there was the video conference. Instead of the pub, we embraced the Zoom quiz. The gym gave way to living room workouts and holidays were replaced with walks in the countryside. And our closest companions have been on-hand throughout all the ups and downs.

One such dog is Stanley, a four-year-old Jack Russell from Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. His owner Emma says Stanley helps her to get exercise, focus, and manage stress.

“Stanley has really helped my mental health during this time because he gets me moving each morning,” says Emma. “At the start I'd take him for a short run before work, but now I get up a little earlier and take him for a longer walk almost every morning.

“That way we both get exercise – he sleeps for the day while I work from home and I've had some fresh air, which helps me to focus.

“When I'm feeling stressed, he's always up for a cuddle, which always helps!”

Cats and dogs have also helped to keep families occupied as they adapt to extended school closures and new working arrangements.

Black Labrador Milo has helped his owner Stuart to adapt to recent changes by keeping the whole family occupied in Boston, Lincolnshire.

“For many, isolation has allowed them to spend more time with their families and loved ones. For me it has meant more work,” says Stuart.

“Milo has kept the wife company and helped to keep her active with regular walks and lots of cuddles.”

Meanwhile, Bella, a Bloodhound who lives in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, has been helping owner Richard to switch off.

“Bella is a rescue and came with a lot of issues, so we've been working on further training, which has been a good distraction,” says Richard.

The science behind the mood boost

It’s no secret that pets have a positive effect on our mental health – in fact, several studies have supported the link, suggesting that pets can help to ward off depression, increase feelings of relaxation and can even reduce the physical effects of stress.

It is thought that animals replicate many of the positive effects people gain from socialising, including elevating serotonin levels and decreasing tension – so it’s no surprise they have offered a helping paw during a time when our interactions have been limited.

Not just for lockdown: Things to consider before buying a pet

As demand for pets has grown, charities have warned against rushing to buy puppies and kittens. Dogs Trust even tweaked its slogan to “a dog is for life, not just for lockdown” in May amid fears new owners were not looking to the future.

It’s a reminder to ensure you have all the resources you’ll need to take good care of a pet well into the future – including time, space, and pet insurance. As we prepare to enter a period of recession, it is also worth remembering that dogs cost about £21,000 across their lifetimes. While there might be a lot of benefit to be had in return, they do represent a significant investment in the first place.

If your cat or dog has been keeping you company during lockdown, they could suffer separation anxiety when you return to a normal routine. Animal behaviourists at the RSPCA have created a useful guide to helping your pet adjust.