The impact pets have on the lives of their owners is no secret, supporting them through both joyous moments and difficult times. This has remained true throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, with pet adoptions skyrocketing as people are forced to stay home (Hedgpeth, 2021). However, do pets truly impact our mental health in the way that we assume they do? A study focused on human-pet interactions in Malaysia wanted to test how pets can be used to treat mental health and general well being problems during prolonged periods of social isolation, as was the case with Covid-19 (Grajfoner et al., 2021).
The adverse effects of isolation in response to Covid-19 have been well documented over the past year or so, with many people reporting feeling anxious, depressed, bored, or lonely. In order to combat this feeling, many decided to turn to pet companionship when human interactions were not possible. In studying the effect that this decision had on the humans, especially when compared to those who did not have pets, Malaysia was chosen as the area of focus because there is relatively little data about human-animal interactions in Southeast Asia in general. The information gathered would be providing a new outlook into a certain idea, one potentially affected by social and cultural norms in that region.
From a total pool of 920 responses, 224 pet owners and 224 non-pet owners were chosen (Grajfoner et al., 2021). Of the pet owner’s, 122 were dog owners and 80 were cat owners. It should be noted that the sample is inconsistent with the actual ratio of types of pets owned, as of the 50% of Malasians households that owned pets, 71% of them had cats while less than 1.3% owned dogs (Grajfoner et al., 2021). That inconsistency aside, the individuals were from all over Malaysia and of varying ages, genders, marital status, education, etc., representing a diverse group of people.
The study had these individuals fill out various surveys rating their mental health and general wellbeing. The results reported that there were statistically significant differences between pet owners and non-pet owners, especially when it came to coping, self-efficacy, positive emotions, and psychological well-being, leaning in favor of pet owners (Grajfoner et al., 2021). The difference wasn’t large, but they did show that having pets improved the owner’s life in various areas of life, at least to a certain degree. Certain groups, such as those 65 and older, had to be removed from the study due to not having enough data to form a reliable conclusion from their responses. The outcome, however, remains the same, with pets improving daily life in certain aspects, although interaction with them did not result in a noticeable decrease in mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. In fact, the prevalence of those illnesses within both sample groups remained roughly the same.
Interestingly enough, the studies done within groups focusing on pet owners and the different types of pets showed the most variations when it came to general wellbeing. Studies done in the UK and the United States claimed that owning dogs would result in the greatest benefit, as the physical act of walking a dog and other associated acts would lead to an improvement in wellbeing overall. This study done in Malaysia, however, found the opposite to be true, with the few cat owners present in this study reporting greater psychological wellbeing than the numerous dog owners (Grajfoner et al., 2021). The authors theorized that the act of feeding the cats, petting them, and overall engaging with them on an emotional level held more benefits for their owners than the physical activity that a dog could provide for its owner. Regardless, isolation during this pandemic has been difficult, and any form of respite, whether it be a walk with your dog or napping with your cat, is welcome.
Grajfoner, Ke, G. N., & Wong, R. M. M. (2021). The Effect of Pets on Human Mental Health and Wellbeing during COVID-19 Lockdown in Malaysia. Animals (Basel), 11(9), 2689–. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11092689
Hedgpeth, D. (2021, January 7). So many pets have been adopted during the pandemic that shelters are running out. The Washington Post. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2021/01/06/animal-shelters- coronavirus-pandemic/.