Photo taken in Krasnoyarsk, Russia

puppy power

Study reveals 3 mental-health benefits of dogs in a crisis

Scientists weigh in on the pandemic puppy effect.

Petrscotch Petrscotch / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

The last year’s lockdowns have been marked by periodic frenzies: Lines down the block for rapid tests, shortages of toilet paper, a strange lack of chicken. While these frenzies peaked and ebbed, another seems to have sustained: the Pandemic Puppy Effect. The strength of this particular side effect is debated, but what is true is that it is strong enough researchers are now digging into the consequences of all the mid-lockdown dog adoptions and purchases — and what they find reveals how dogs affect humans’ mental health.

What’s new — A study published earlier this month in the journal PLOS ONE finds dogs had one significant mental-health benefit during the pandemic for dog owners compared to potential dog owners (people interested in getting a dog).

The findings help confirm what we suspected all along: Dogs are really are people’s best friends, enabling humans to weather the mental hurdles of unprecedented times.

“Our results suggest that dog ownership may have provided people with a stronger sense of social support, which in turn may have helped buffer some of the negative psychological impacts caused by the Covid-19 pandemic,” Francois Martin, lead author on the study and a scientist at Nestle Purina Research, tells Inverse. Purina is a pet food producer.

The findings jibe with past reports suggesting many pet owners — and dog owners especially — felt greater comfort and wellbeing during uncertain times, relying on pets to brighten their mood, maintain a routine, or simply give them a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

How they did it — The researchers recruited 768 dog owners and 767 potential dog owners to take part in an online survey in November 2020.

Despite the small sample size, the researchers “feel confident that our results are representative of the general population of U..S dog owners and potential dog owners,” Martin says.

They used six scientific measures to assess the survey respondents’ psychological well-being, their relationship with their pets, and their support systems. Specifically, they were rated for depression symptoms, signs of anxiety, happiness, and their perceptions of social supports.

Researchers find dog owners had lower levels of depression compared to potential pet owners. Getty

What they found — The researchers directly compare dog owners to potential owners — these are four of the most significant findings from the survey and analysis:

  1. Dog owners have a lower depression score compared to potential dog owners
  2. Dog owners report significantly greater levels of social support compared to potential dog owners
  3. Dog owners have a more positive attitude towards and commitment to their pets
  4. There were no differences in anxiety and happiness scores between the two groups

In short: Non-dog owners aren’t any more or less anxious or happy than dog owners, according to the data, but the researchers do draw out a correlation between owning a dog and lower levels of depression symptoms.

The results aren’t necessarily surprising, but they are affirming to pet owners.

“We were expecting that dog owners would benefit from the presence of their dog during this difficult time,” Martin says.

“...it is fair to say that dogs can positively contribute to the wellbeing of people.”

Why it matters — Dog studies like this one are limited for a number of reasons. You can’t exactly give one group of people pets to do a randomized controlled trial — the gold standard for this kind of research. Instead, it relies on self-reports: Participants’ own subjective understanding of their mental states, their life situation, and their relationship with their pets.

So, we can’t state that dogs directly “lowered” depression levels in owners, but, rather, that there is a correlation between dog ownership and depression.

The research team controlled for major variables that could bias the findings, like age, demographic, and other lifestyle factors.

“We feel confident that dog ownership, at least partially, explains the differences we observed between the two groups,” Martin says.

Dogs may act as a support for people in times of emotional stress.martinedoucet/E+/Getty Images

“What our results suggest is that dogs do provide social support to people and that dogs may positively contribute to the wellbeing of owners during difficult times, including feeling less depressed,” he adds.

Importantly, the researchers are employed by a research center associated with a commercial pet food producer.

What’s next — So, should everyone who’s feeling a little blue go out and adopt a dog? Not based on these results, the researchers say, since their research is not a clinical study on people diagnosed with depression.

“It is important to point out that we did not conduct a clinical study with people diagnosed with depression. I believe that it would be misleading to say that dogs can ‘cure’ depression,” Martin says.

It’s also important to recognize these benefits largely apply to people who already like dogs. If you don’t like dogs, to begin with, getting a pup for your mental health is a bad idea — for both you and the animal. Dogs are no walk in the park — and yet they may require one.

For people who love dogs, the mental health benefits and support pets can provide during a crisis are self-evident — even without scientific proof.

“As a dog lover and dog owner myself, I think that it is fair to say that dogs can positively contribute to the wellbeing of people,” Martin says.

Abstract: Major life events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, affect psychological and physiological health. Social support, or the lack thereof, can modulate these effects. The context of the COVID-19 pandemic offered a unique opportunity to better understand how dogs may provide social support for their owners and buffer heightened symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression and contribute to happiness during a major global crisis. Participants (768 pet dog owners and 767 potential pet dog owners) answered an online survey, including validated depression, anxiety, happiness psychometric scales, attitude to and commitment towards pet, and perceived social support. Potential pet dog owners were defined as individuals who did not own a dog at the time of the survey but would be very or extremely interested in owning one in the future. Dog owners reported having significantly more social support available to them compared to potential dog owners, and their depression scores were also lower, compared to potential dog owners. There were no differences in anxiety and happiness scores between the two groups. Dog owners had a significantly more positive attitude towards and commitment to pets. Taken together, our results suggest that dog ownership may have provided people with a stronger sense of social support, which in turn may have helped buffer some of the negative psychological impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
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