Children strongly bonded to pets during COVID experienced more anxiety

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic caused immense disruption in the lives of millions around the world. Businesses and schools were closed down, travel routes blocked, lockdowns enforced, and social distancing was enforced. Many companies also transitioned their employees to remote work while childcare simultaneously became unavailable.

Amidst these changes, families struggled to adjust, as they were forced to develop new routines to support their activities, all the while ensuring that they remained emotionally, mentally, and physically healthy. In a recent PLOS One journal study conducted in Australia, both a parent’s and child’s attachment to pets appears to be a barometer of mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Study: Parent and Child Mental Health During COVID-19 In Australia: The Role of Pet Attachment. Image Credit: Ground Picture / Shutterstock.com

Introduction

Young people are more likely to experience isolation, whether physical or emotional, as well as feeling bored, lonely, anxious, and depressed. For many people, pets appear to offer an alternative and easier way to feel loved and experience a sense of belonging than human relationships.

Pet cats and dogs have become extremely popular over the last century, especially in the West. However, these pets require food, shelter, exercise, medical care, and training, all of which can be demanding and expensive. Their passing also causes severe distress for many owners.

Pets may enhance the mental and physical health of their owners, as well as their levels of physical activity. Such benefits can mitigate parental concern about their child’s mood, behavior, and learning capacity.

For children, pet ownership is associated with better emotional control, self-esteem, and a sense of having a friend who does not judge or condemn them but is always ready to show affection. This is especially valuable for those who are already mentally insecure or have a history of trauma, as well as only children, as pets may prevent social and emotional issues.

However, the evidence for such benefits of pet ownership is conflicting. Owners who are greatly attached to their pets show more evidence of mental distress and when their pets are older, show lower levels of mental health. The same is true for those who work in risky jobs.

More pets were adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic than ever before. Australia, for example, has the most pet owners anywhere in the world relative to its population. With two out of three households owning a pet, over five million dogs and approximately four million cats are domesticated in this nation.

Australian parents have shown a decline in well-being with the onset of the pandemic, especially if they were already facing poor mental health, were financially stressed, belonged to a lower social class, or suffered work-related adverse effects due to the pandemic.

About the study

The current study discusses the effect of attachment to pets on an individual’s sense of mental wellbeing. In a relationship, attachment refers to the “deep and enduring emotional connections in which each seeks closeness and feels more secure when the attachment figure is present.”

Data from the United States indicates that pet attachment protects owners against psychological symptoms in those with moderate or high distress but not severe distress. Conversely, greater attachment to pets has been linked to greater mental distress in the United Kingdom.

In the current study, researchers sought to understand how pet attachment helped families cope psychologically during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a time of great and widespread uncertainty. Data was acquired through the Parents, Pets & Pandemic Survey, which was administered between July and October 2020 and corresponded to the second wave of the pandemic in the continent.

The survey was conducted online by families who had at least one child staying with them and at least one dog or cat. Most participants were non-Indigenous Australians, mostly from Victoria, with almost 80% of respondents being female. One-third of the children in these families were only children.

The majority of the study participants lived in better residential areas within a metropolis, mostly in two-parent families. About 25% of study participants had adopted a new pet during the pandemic for various reasons, including the health and wellbeing of children or parents, at the children’s requests, or for children to learn responsibility. Few of these families had a history of COVID-19, with most having been tested at some point.

Study findings

Parents who were attached to their pets reported the same for their children. This was not associated with parental psychological distress and instead showed a close correlation with their emotional closeness to the pet. Parental pet attachment was not linked to mental health.

Parents who described themselves as emotionally close to their pets were more likely to be more worried about the pandemic, as well as suffer poorer mental health and greater distress. Children who were attached to their pets also were more likely to be anxious.  

In families more severely affected by COVID-19, parents worried about it more and also suffered greater psychological stress. However, this was not reflected in the children’s anxiety. Parents who were more worried also reported more psychological distress and were more attached to their pets.

Implications

The small increase in parental worry about COVID-19 is perhaps because individual families experience different situations and perceive risks differently. The associations observed in the current study suggest a direct effect of the pandemic on mental health, as well as an indirect effect mediated through parental attachment to the pet.

Children may be more likely to be anxious if their parents are anxious, thereby indicating both natural and nurture-induced associations. Notably, more anxious children also showed a greater attachment to the pet.

Likewise, parents with more emotional closeness to the pet appeared to be more distressed by the pandemic. The inconsistent absence of an association between parental pet attachment and distress might be due to the wrong framing of the survey questions.

It is possible that anxious parents and children sought comfort in their pets or that those with greater pet attachment became more distressed. In fact, both of these factors may operate in combination.

That is, in the absence of many customary social support systems and the inability to access such systems, family stresses are likely to have increased, particularly since children were studying and parents were working in the same environment, unlike before. When added to pre-existing mental or physical constraints, the difficulty is increased and may be associated with strong pet attachments.

The ability to bond with pets may signify high empathy, which could contribute to greater distress. Certain personality types or distinct coping strategies may also result in using pets to achieve physical or emotional security.

The current study may have attracted pet owners with stronger bonds to their pets since about 10% of respondents had to be excluded because they had no children but identified themselves as parents of their pets. Another limitation was the inclusion of a single child and of the newest pet, which meant that the relationships between parents, children, and pets were ignored, as well as the likely stronger relationship with older pets in the home.

The study findings may indicate the role of very strong bonding with pets as a red flag, thus suggesting either emotional vulnerability or the lack of human social support. More research may support the use of pets to offer comfort and avoid psychological ill-health in situations of crisis and great stress.

More emphasis should also be given to address the lack of support systems by ensuring the availability and accessibility of other avenues for connecting with other human companions.

Journal reference:

  • Bennetts, S. K., Crawford, S. B., Howell, T. J., et al. (2022). Parent and Child Mental Health During COVID-19 In Australia: The Role of Pet Attachment. PLoS One. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0271687.

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