The Important Role Dogs Play During Covid-19 Times

Professor Lori Kogan

Lorri Kogan PHD is Professor of Clinical Sciences for the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University. She is a licensed psychologist and the Chair of the Human-Animal Interaction Section of the American Psychological Association; Research chair for the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care; and Editor of the Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin

Our dogs play an important role as valued companions, contributing to both our emotional and physical wellbeing. During the COVID-19 lockdown this interdependency has become more apparent and new research shows there is a growing reliance on our relationships with our dogs.

Numerous studies in the past have found that those with a dog are healthier and happier, perhaps helping to explain their popularity. People sharing their homes with dogs are sick less frequently, make fewer visits to the doctor, have lower blood pressure and risk of heart disease and are less depressed and stressed than those without a dog. Dogs also help people relax and reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. For older adults in particular, dogs can buffer the negative effects accompanying a lack of human social connections. Furthermore, it has been suggested that the responsibility of caring for a dog gives people a sense of purpose that contributes to their overall wellbeing. In fact, just looking at dogs can make us feel happier, as one study found by examining the increased levels of oxytocin found when people look at their dogs. Are we surprised? Those of us with dogs know that just taking a minute to pause and watch them, whether they are sleeping or acting goofy, helps ground and centre us. They remind us of what is important.

All these benefits occur during normal times, yet with COVID-19, things are far from normal. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought countless changes to how we live our lives. It has made for an uncomfortable level of uncertainty – altering our daily routines, creating financial stressors and increasing social isolation.

How do dogs help us during this time? And how has COVID-19 impacted the relationship we have with our dogs? Researchers from four different US universities (Colorado State University, Washington State University, University of San Francisco and Palo Alto University) set out to answer these questions through an online anonymous survey for those with dogs. One of the first things we wanted to explore was how COVID-19 and related schedule/lifestyle changes have impacted the amount of time people are spending with their dogs.

The results, published in June 2020, suggest there are a lot of very happy dogs – 72% of people report spending more time overall with their dog, with 64% reporting more play time and 42% more walk time. Most participants report that this increased time has strengthened the bond they feel with their dog. Sentiments like “He is getting me through this” were common responses. Given the fact that 29% of respondents reported feeling they have minimal social support now (compared to only 8% who felt that way before COVID-19), this bond is more important than ever.

So, perhaps due to a lack of other social connections, it would appear that one effect of COVID-19 is a growing reliance on our relationships with our dogs. It is perhaps not surprising then that dogs appear to help people cope with the myriad of negative emotions that can accompany the changes created by COVID-19. We found that over 50% of people report feeling that their dogs help reduce their feelings of anxiety, depression, isolation and loneliness. As one owner explained, “I’m not lonely because he’s here.” Additionally, 54% of owners reported that their dogs help provide them with a purpose.

Over 50% of people said their dogs helped reduce feelings of anxiety, depression, isolation and loneliness. 

It is clear from these early findings that dogs play a critical role for many people during these stressful times. As one respondent noted, “I can’t imagine going through this without them.” It is not surprising therefore, that many owners are concerned about being able to provide for their dog in the future. This concern includes the ability to afford and access veterinary care and dog food/supplies, as well as being able to care for their dog if they themselves contractCOVID-19. To this end, 60% of respondents reported that they have identified someone to care for their dog if they become ill. Yet that leaves 40% who have not designated a caretaker for their dog. There are so many things that are outside of our control these days, but having a plan for our dog if we become ill and need to be hospitalised is something we can do; and, being prepared can help reduce feelings of panic. One tangible way to take control and prepare for the future is to ensure our dogs are cared for in the case of an emergency.

In summary, as we lean into this new future, those of us with dogs can take comfort in knowing that they are here with us on the journey (with more walks along the way). To learn more, you can access the full report at FidoFortCollins.org.