There is a lot of science backing the adage that dogs are man’s best friend.
For instance, according to research, dog ownership can lower death risk following a cardiovascular event, such as a stroke or heart attack. It is also possible to train dogs to identify hypoglycemia in people with diabetes.
Similarly, there has been much research showcasing the different ways in which dogs help boost the well-being of their human owners.
Now, a team of researchers from Nestlé Purina Research in Saint-Louis, MO, reports that dog owners reported less depression and felt they had more social support compared with a control group during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Francois Martin, lead author and section leader of the Behavior and Welfare Group at Nestlé Purina Research, spoke with Medical News Today:
“The context of the COVID-19 pandemic offered a unique opportunity to better understand how dogs may provide social support for their owners, buffer heightened symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression, and contribute to happiness.”
The researchers believe their study shows that owning a dog helped safeguard pet owners from some of the negative psychological impacts resulting from the pandemic. They also say that it adds to the scientific evidence that dogs provide positive support to their owners during hard times.
What is social support?
The COVID-19 pandemic has had both a psychological and physiological impact on humans. Recent research has investigated the effect of the pandemic on the mental health of healthcare workers and other at-risk groups.
Other research reported a three-fold increase in elevated depressive symptoms in the United States during the pandemic. The United Kingdom also experienced an increase in mental health issues at this time.
Social support helps balance the negative effects that significant life events can have on the psychological and physiological well-being of humans.
In the recent study, the authors define social support as involving one or more of the following:
- an awareness of being cared for
- the knowledge of being loved, esteemed, and valued
- the feeling of belonging to a supportive network
Previous research shows that social support helps people moderate life stress and has a beneficial effect on the cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems.
Additionally, earlier research shows that social support might have a positive effect on the quality of life of people with diseases such as osteoarthritis, asthma, and diabetes.
Dog owners versus potential dog owners
For the observational study, Dr. Martin and his team utilized data from 768 dog owners and 767 potential dog owners in the U.S., who were all aged 18 years and over and participated in an online survey.
The researchers defined “potential dog owners” as those who did not own a dog during the time of the study but were very interested in owning one in the future. This group acted as the control.
The team excluded survey respondents whose dogs were service or therapy animals from the study.
The study survey included various demographic questions as well as questions about the dogs that the respondents owned. The participants also answered questions regarding the effects the COVID-19 pandemic had had on their finances, health, lifestyle, and emotions.
“As in the general population, dog owners and potential dog owners were affected by the pandemic,” Dr. Martin reported.
“Overall, 33% of our respondents said that their health had been somewhat to extremely impacted, 45% said that their finances were somewhat to extremely impacted, 67% mentioned that their emotions were somewhat to extremely impacted, and 72% said that their lifestyle had been somewhat to extremely impacted.”
Additionally, the researchers evaluated participant responses using six different psychometric scales:
- Pet Attitude Scale: This scale measures a person’s positivity toward their pet.
- Miller-Rada Commitment to Pets Scale: This scale estimates how much time, energy, and resources an owner is willing to give a pet.
- Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support: Researchers use this to determine how much social support a person feels they receive.
- Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale-Revised: This scale looks at the extent to which a person meets the criteria for depression.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder Scale: Researchers use this scale to measure anxiety.
- Oxford Happiness Questionnaire: This is a technique for assessing a person’s happiness.
With the results tabulated, Dr. Martin said that his team found that dog owners reported having significantly more social support available to them compared with the potential dog owner group.
“We also found that dog owners had significantly lower depression scores than potential dog owners, but the two groups had similar anxiety and happiness scores,” he added.
The next steps
According to Dr. Martin, the results suggest that dog ownership may have provided people with a stronger sense of social support, which, in turn, may have helped buffer some of the negative psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In regards to further research, Dr. Martin said that one thing that stands out in the study was that pet dogs’ contribution to the well-being of people might be more apparent among individuals in precarious states, such as those experiencing high stress or social isolation.
“Compared with those who reported high perceived social support, people — dog owners and potential dog owners — who reported low social support had depression and anxiety scores about twice as high, and their happiness scores were notably lower,” Dr. Martin explained.
Dr. Martin told MNT that the depression scores of the participants with low perceived social support were almost three times higher than the depression scores of the participants with high levels of perceived social support.
However, because there were such large differences between the groups — 77 in the low group, 420 in the moderate group, and 1,032 in the high group — he explained that “it was not possible to analyze the data statistically.”
“This suggests that dog ownership effects might be most measurable within populations of people with low to moderate social support,” he added. “Future research should focus on people with low and moderate social support. This is an avenue that seems important to explore.”
Limitations of note
MNT also spoke with Dr. Stephen L. Stern, adjunct professor for the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Joe R. & Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. He is also a member of the STRONG STAR Research Consortium.
He explained that he had concerns about the design and conclusions of the study:
“Although the samples were very large, it is not clear how representative they were of the general population,” he said.
“In addition, the members of the control group could have differed from the dog owners in ways other than not having a dog. The two groups could also have come from areas that were differentially affected by the pandemic at the time of the survey.”
– Dr. Stern
Overall, Dr. Stern believes that the conclusions are “overstated,” saying:
“There was a statistically significant difference between the two groups — likely because of the very large sample sizes — but the effect sizes were very small, and the differences in rating scale scores were not clinically significant.”
It is also worth noting that Nestlé Purina sells more dry dog food in the U.S. than any other company.