People with strong attachments to their pets were more likely to report their mental health suffering during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to new research from Queen’s University Belfast.
The study, based on a survey of people in the UK during the January 2021 lockdown, found people less emotionally attached to their pets reported having better mental health.
The research from the school of psychology asked 143 pet owners and 103 people who did not have pets to fill out a series of questions.
It found the people who reported being most attached to their dog or cat had the highest levels of depression and loneliness and lowest levels of happiness.
The study said how much a person felt attached to their pet was “the strongest predictor” of higher levels of reported depression. There was no “significant difference” to this between dog and cat owners, it said.
Levels of attachment
Women, people with fewer social connections and those with children at home were other cohorts more likely to report feelings of depression, the study said.
The research found women had higher levels of attachment to their pets than men, and dog owners reported a stronger bond compared to cat owners.
It also noted people who met up with others every day during the pandemic reported lower levels of depression.
The researchers suggested the link between attachment to pets and higher rates of depression could be due to people with mental health difficulties seeking to bond with a pet “as a sort of self-help strategy”.
The study, due to be published in the journal Anthrozoös, suggested it could also be because people with strong connections to their pet “lack” quality relationships with other people.
Dr Deborah Wells, who led the research, said the findings might be “surprising” to the public, given pets are considered to be good for mental health.
“We found that those who were most attached to their pets were more likely to be depressed or lonely,” she said.
Dr Wells said it might be the case that people with stronger connections to a pet could have “a personality type that predisposes them to poorer mental wellbeing”.
The study showed there was an “emotional vulnerability” in people who reported being very attached to their pets, she said.
“This is an area of research worthy of further study as it could help us to develop strategies to boost mental wellbeing and address mental health problems as we emerge from the pandemic,” she added.