Furry creatures playing major role during pandemic

Lockdowns, job losses and social isolation have been the hallmarks of COVID-19 here in Alaska. However, this pandemic also is denying humans the most basic sense – touch. This is triggering a boom for the pet industry. In the absence of human-to-human contact in millions of households worldwide, animals have stepped into the breach for many people. They now are providing much needed comfort via cuddles, pats and a constant physical presence.

A new study published by University of South Australia researchers points to the lifesaving role pets have played in 2020 and will be playing in 2021. The article is published in The Journal of Behavioural Economics for Policy (JBEP) and it outlines how pets have a crucial role to play in an era where human-to-human contact can be life endangering.

Lead author Janette Young said physical touch is a sense that has been taken for granted and even overlooked until COVID-19.

"In a year when human contact has been so limited and people have been deprived of touch, the health impacts on our quality of life have been enormous," said Young. "To fill the void of loneliness and to provide a buffer against stress, there has been a global upsurge in people adopting dogs and cats from animal shelters during lockdowns. Breeders have also been inundated, with demands for puppies quadrupling some waiting lists."

Spending on pets was already hitting record levels, in the region of $260 billion globally in 2020. It is expected to far surpass that number in 2021. Currently, it is estimated that more than half the global population share their lives with one or more pets. The health benefits have been widely reported, but little data exists regarding the specific benefits that pets bring to humans in terms of touch.

"Pets seem to be particularly important when people are socially isolated or excluded, providing comfort, companionship and a sense of self-worth," said Young. "Touch is an understudied sense, but existing evidence indicates it is crucial for growth, development and health, as well as reducing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. It is also thought that touch may be particularly important for older people as other senses decline."

In interviews with 32 people, more than 90% said touching their pets both comforted and relaxed them, and the pets seemed to need it as well. Examples of dogs and cats touching their owners when they were distressed, sad or traumatized were cited. Many people referenced pets' innate ability to just "know" when their owners weren't feeling well and to get physically close to them.

"The feedback we received was that pets themselves seem to get just as much pleasure from the tactile interaction as humans," said Young.

Not just dogs and cats either. Participants in various studies mentioned birds, sheep, horses and even reptiles who reciprocate touch. "Animals, like people, are living, breathing beings, with individual interests, styles and preferences. While culturally, animals are not seen as 'human', they are still seen as individuals with likes and dislikes," said Young.

In 2014, a study showed pet therapy may reduce the need for pain medication after joint-replacement surgery. Adults recovering from total joint replacement surgery who receive animal-assisted therapy (AAT) required less pain medication than those who do not experience this type of therapy. Animal-assisted therapy has been used in a variety of healthcare settings to improve quality of life and physical, social, emotional and/or cognitive health for patients.

The study, which was conducted at Loyola University in New Orleans, measured the need for oral pain medication in patients who were exposed to animal-assisted therapy and those who were not. The groups were similar in age, gender, ethnicity, length of stay and type of total joint replacement. The animal-assisted therapy consisted of daily visits from specially trained dogs for an average of five to 15 minutes. The need for oral pain medication was significantly less (28% less) in the animal-assisted therapy group.

Based on recent findings with pets during COVID, Young believes that governments should look into how pets are viewed from a policy angle to help mitigate some of the mental and physical stressors people are experiencing during this pandemic. Michelle Neuf in December adopted a golden doodle. She has a nine year old son and her 67 year old mother lives with her.

"I work from home now and my son has been asking for a dog for a few years now. So, with being home all day, it seems like a good time to get a puppy. I always had dogs growing up and my mom and I loved our dogs. They were a part of our family. So, I want my son to have the same experience," Neuf told Senior Voice.

Young said hospitals, hospices and care facilities for older adults should be encouraging pet connections with residents.

"Residential aged care is yet to recognize the value of human-animal relationships. Had more pets been living with their owners in aged care when COVID-19 restrictions were applied, it could have helped people immeasurably," said Young.

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