Pets Raise Sense of Well-being in Pandemic, But Challenges Remain

Yedida Y Bogachkov PhD avatar

by Yedida Y Bogachkov PhD |

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Owning a dog, cat or other household pet during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has helped multiple sclerosis (MS) patients gain a better overall sense of their health and well-being, a single-site survey by mail of people in the U.K. reported.

But pet-owning patients reported no significant improvements in their sense of social participation, called their “social role,” or in life quality relative to those without a pet, its researchers noted. In fact, all people with MS responding to this survey expressed a lesser quality of life and sense of social role satisfaction than did participants without MS.

The study, “Pet Ownership and Multiple Sclerosis during COVID-19,” was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Owning a pet has been reported to be of benefit to people with chronic conditions, helping to increase satisfaction with life and create a sense of responsibility and routine, while the pet provides unconditional love and companionship, and boosts social interaction and physical contact.

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Changes in social interaction forced by the COVID-19 pandemic has led to rising levels of depression, poorer sleep quality, and a greater sense of fatigue across populations. All of this could be “exacerbating existing problems and further increasing inequalities in the health status” of MS patients relative to the public at large, the researchers wrote.

Previous studies also have indicated that owning a pet may help people cope with the pandemic and its limitations, supporting their mental health and easing their sense of loneliness.

A team of researchers at the University of Nottingham conducted a postal survey to explore the number of MS patients with a pet during COVID-19 and how such ownership affects their sense of life quality, satisfaction with social roles, and self-efficacy — a person’s confidence in their capacity to perform certain tasks. They also asked patients about how they perceived their relationship with their pets.

A total of 189 patients with the Nottingham MS Register and 163 adults without MS (control group) responded to the questionnaire. Patients’ average age was 54 with more women (76%) in this group than men (23%), and with most having relapsing-remitting MS (58%) followed by secondary-progressive MS (23%). Among controls, the average age was 53 and 47% were men.

Employment status also differed, with more medically retired individuals in the MS group, and higher rates of full- or part-time employment in the control group.

Survey responses also showed differences in the amount of time spent at home during the pandemic, with MS patients being more likely to isolate at home and healthy individuals more likely to go about their lives as usual.

More than half of the people in both groups reported owning a pet — 58% of those with MS and 64% of controls. Dogs were the most common pet, reported by 66% of MS patients and 68% of controls, followed by cats (44% patients, 48% controls). Other pets included rabbits, guinea pigs, geckos, horses, birds, and fish reported by 10% of patients and 19% of controls.

No differences were seen between pet-owning MS patients and those without a pet in self-reported quality of life, self-efficacy, and satisfaction with social participation. Rather, employment status was factor with the greatest impact on each of these measures, the researchers reported, and associated with a lower life quality but better self-efficacy.

Questions concerning a person’s attachment to a pet also showed no differences between the two groups of pet owners, the researcher’s noted, with attachment evident among patients regardless of their age or the number of pets. Dog ownership and female sex both associated with a higher sense of attachment to an animal.

The researchers expected that pet ownership, among patients and controls, would increase reported levels of satisfaction with social participation (the social role) relative to non-owners. But MS patients in this survey overall reported a lesser sense of social role satisfaction than did controls, with “no apparent difference” among patients seen in this measure regardless of pet ownership.

“It is possible that, particularly during the time of a pandemic, during a period of heightened stress for many people, pet ownership added an extra ‘burden’ of work,” the researchers wrote.

They noted that somewhat more patients than controls (42.7% vs. 35.2%) expressed concerns with ownership, like access to veterinary care, during the pandemic, although “almost no participants” reported considering “giving up their pet due to COVID-19.”

Both patients and controls, overall, reported benefits from owning a pet, which “helped them to cope emotionally and stay fit and active, with positive impacts on their family,” the researchers wrote.

“Pets appear to be an important source of emotional support, whilst also promoting physical exercise, enabling owners to keep fit and active,” they wrote. “This is important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in poor mental health across all groups, as well as restrictions on normal activities.”

Pet ownership may also be particularly helpful to people with MS, “a group known to experience high levels of poor mental health, isolation, and reduced exercise, under normal life conditions … during a period that posed a threat to interpersonal relationships due to high levels of stress and social disruption,” they added.

However, patients responding to this questionnaire survey showed that owning a pet “was not found to affect QoL [quality of life], self-efficacy,” or satisfaction with social roles, the researchers concluded.

They noted that their study’s findings may have been affected by the low number of respondents  — 800 questionnaires were sent by post to people with and without MS — and the “quantitative” nature of this survey.

“Future work could benefit from including qualitative research … including the effects of living with chronic illnesses and the contribution of pets to the day-to-day management of MS,” the study concluded.

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