Pet ownership rose sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the mental health benefit of owning and caring for domesticated animals was not universal.
A new study by researchers at Trinity College and Carnegie Mellon University found pet ownership was associated with better mental health during the pandemic, but only among people who had a partner.
Unpartnered individuals—those not in a romantic relationship—did not experience mental health benefit from pets, the study said.
“It is possible that the beneficial effects of pet ownership on mental health were mitigated by the additional challenges of owning a pet during a pandemic, such as the need to obtain food, supplies, and veterinary care,” said Brian N. Chin, assistant professor of psychology at Trinity. “It is also possible that it was less burdensome for pet owners to navigate the challenges of owning a pet during a pandemic if they had the support of a partner.”
Chin collaborated on the study with Dolores Marcial-Modesto ’23, and Elizabeth D. Casserly, associate professor of psychology at Trinity. Their work was part of a larger investigation into the impacts of COVID on individuals, couples, and families, funded by the Carnegie Mellon University Relationships Lab under Brooke C. Fenney, professor of psychology.
Published in Frontiers in Psychology, the study encompassed nearly 3,000 American adults between May 2020 and May 2021. In the primarily female study group, 36 percent of participants owned a pet, and 68 percent were in a romantic relationship.
Researchers offered possible reasons that the mental health benefit was not universal: the pandemic isolated individuals; the additional challenges of owning a pet, when faced by a single person, may have outweighed any benefits; and benefits of pet ownership may be selective—applying only with certain types of pets.
Further, the mental health benefits may hinge on the level of bonding between pet and owner. Pet adoption rates were high during the pandemic, offering the potential that forging bonds with new pets was also occurring at the time of the study.
More studies are needed. With reports that nearly 60 percent of Americans currently own some type of pet, human-animal relationships are important to understand, the researchers note.