“This cottage would feel kind of bereft of life without Maisie padding around,” says Jan.
I’m sure Jan isn’t alone in feeling happy to have a dog. Many of us are relying more on our pets for comfort while we face the uncertainty of the pandemic—even those of us who have human roommates to keep us company. Research suggests that there’s something about our dogs that makes us feel less lonely and anxious, and can even keep us healthier.
What is that something? It’s hard to put a finger on, but hormones may play a role. Petting a dog has been shown to reduce cortisol (the stress hormone), for example, and caring for a dog releases oxytocin (the bonding hormone that calms us and increases our trust in others).
Here are some of the science-backed ways that our dogs can help us cope with difficult circumstances and stay well.
1. Dogs Stave Off Loneliness
Many of us are feeling a bit lonelier than usual these days; sheltering-in-place and keeping our distance from others is hard for everyone, including introverts. Being without human touch is particularly difficult: People who are touch-deprived tend to feel more depressed, experience more pain, and even have poorer immunity. But having a pet around (including dogs or their cat rivals) can help prevent loneliness.
“I’m hugely grateful that I’ve had Maisie as my eight-pound, fluff-ball quarantine buddy,” says Jan. “She keeps me company whether I’m reading or gardening, and cracks me up regularly with her episodes of doggy silliness.”
Though the benefits of having a pet have been studied more among the elderly (who often have limited social contact), those benefits likely apply to many more of us during COVID-19. After all, we all have less social contact than we’d normally have right now, and that’s got to be hard on our psyches.
Why do dogs help us with loneliness? It’s probably not an accident that dogs are often called “man’s best friend.” Many people feel that dogs provide unconditional love and easy companionship. Plus, many of us have the sense that our dog resonates with us emotionally—a notion that some science supports. We’re bound to feel less isolated with a soft, understanding, loving being around.
2. Dogs Reduce Stress and Anxiety
Many of us have been super stressed and anxious during the pandemic. We don’t know when we will be able to move about freely again, our jobs may be compromised, and we’re worried about contracting the virus or passing it on to others. We also can’t do many of the things that usually help us manage stress better—such as going to the gym or having dinner with a group of friends.
Luckily, dogs can help, as many studies have shown and experts attest. In one study, 48 participants were given a stress test during which they had to do public speaking and then perform difficult calculations while unfriendly observers watched them. The participants were randomly assigned to have either a friend, a dog they didn’t know, or no one accompany them before and during the test. Their cortisol levels and heart rates were measured before, just after, and 30 minutes after the test, and they filled out questionnaires about their anxiety.
While everyone became more anxious during the test and showed higher heart rates and cortisol levels, those participants paired with a dog had lower levels of both than those with no support or even those with a friend. This suggests that being with a dog can help us recover from stressful situations—perhaps even the stress of a pandemic—even if it’s not our own dog (which may be why some colleges bring canines onto campuses during finals week).
For those who can’t have a pet, there is some evidence that just seeing videos of dogs can reduce stress and anxiety. That probably explains why many of us turn to cute puppy (and cat) videos for relief.
3. Dogs Help Us Get Along With Others
While many of us are seeing our friends on Zoom and in other physically distanced ways during the pandemic, it can be hard to feel truly connected. And, as the quarantine drags on, it may be harder to get along with the people we live with, too—like our partners and our children.
But there is evidence that having a dog around can improve our ability to connect with other people. For example, one study found that in the presence of a dog, people acted more trusting, friendly, and cooperative. Although this study was done in a work group, the same might be true for those of us working and living together in tight spaces.
Another study found that when someone is out and about with a dog, people consider them to be more approachable than someone without a dog. And, if people walking a dog “accidentally” drop some coins in the street, they are more likely to be helped by a stranger.
This is something Jan noticed during her quarantine outings. “Maisie prods me out of the house for walks around our neighborhood, where she invariably provokes friendly (socially distanced) interactions with friends and strangers alike.”
It’s nice to know dogs can act as a kind of social glue. In another study, researchers randomly surveyed people in the United States and Australia, asking them how much they interacted with their neighbors. The findings revealed that pet owners (in the United States, at least) were significantly more likely to know people in their neighborhoods, while dog owners in particular were more likely to consider a neighbor a friend and to feel socially supported by their neighbors.
Given that so many of us are limited to our neighborhoods or, possibly, dependent on neighbors for help during the pandemic, dog ownership may give us a slight advantage when it comes to connecting with those around us.
4. Dogs Keep Us Healthier
All of these advantages—being less lonely, less stressed and anxious, and more connected to others—also tend to make us healthier. And there is direct evidence that dog owners experience a variety of health benefits.
A review of multiple research studies found that pet owners had significantly lower heart rates, arterial pressure, and systolic blood pressure, suggesting better cardiovascular health. Some of this may have to do with the fact that most dogs need to be walked, and so people who own dogs tend to walk more. But there are probably other pieces to the puzzle. For example, one study found that people who acquired a dog reported fewer minor health problems and rated themselves as healthier than non-pet owners, up to 10 months later. Another study found that dog owners live longer and that pet owners make fewer annual doctor visits than non-owners, even after considering gender, age, marital status, income, and other health-related factors.
It could be that adopting a needy animal confers its own benefits, as doing good deeds tends to make us happier and healthier. Interestingly, during COVID-19, there has been an increase in the number of people willing to foster a pet, in part because more people are working from home and can therefore accommodate a pet’s needs more easily.
It’s clear that what we receive from dogs in love and care comes with many additional benefits. Perhaps, if we want to get through the pandemic in better mental and physical health, it wouldn’t hurt to have a dog around.
Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good’s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine. This article was originally published by the Greater Good online magazine.