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Leaning on our furry friends

Queen's University researcher Lisa Carver discusses the benefits of pets during the pandemic.

A couple carry a puppy
The human and animal bond can be helpful during times of stress, however, as Queen's researcher Lisa Carver points out, pets are only beneficial to us if we have the time and energy for them and the knowledge/ability to care for them. (Courtesy Andrew McLaughlin Photography)

They say you can never underestimate the warmth of the cold, wet nose of a furry friend. In a Q&A with the Gazette, Queen’s University researcher Lisa Carver (Faculty of Health Science, Faculty of Arts and Science) discusses the benefits of animal companionship as we face isolation, stress, and fear. 

Q: How important is the human and animal bond during this stressful time? 

A: First, we need to start with the caveat that pets are only beneficial to us if we have the time and energy for them and the knowledge/ability to care for them. Getting a pet when you are already stretched too thin financially or emotionally will not be helpful to the human or the animal. However, when there is a caring relationship between a human and a dog or cat, interacting with it can decrease psychological arousal and stress. So the presence of a family pet actually creates physiological changes that make us feel better. In fact,  having a pet may be a powerful influencer in maintaining health protective behaviours , such as eating well or going out for a walk. The basic activities involved in caring for cats, dogs, and other companion animals, such as “bending, reaching, ambulating, and using both arms in a functional manner to provide food, water, and grooming” actually provide exercise, which is very important for people who spend the day in a stationary position. 

Q: What can animals provide that we might be lacking? 

A: During the COVID-19 pandemic I have been running an online study on relationships between humans and non-human companions, like dogs and cats. Preliminary results, from 100 respondents in their 30s to 90s, living in Canada, the USA, England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, revealed that animals provide comfort, and help to alleviate depression and isolation. Several people reported that they would be lost without their pet and another said “It is the only thing that is keeping me sane.” The presence of a dog or a cat in the home may be the barrier between an isolated person and despair. 

Q: We see videos of pets visiting seniors at the windows of nursing homes. Is this beneficial if the seniors can’t physically touch the animals? 

A: In my opinion this is definitely helpful for two main reasons. First of all, when people bring animals to visit, even outside the window, it is a reminder to those on the inside that they are not forgotten and someone cares about them. Just knowing that you are important enough to someone that they took time out of their day to see you can help manage situational depression, caused by being away from your loved ones. The other reason it is helpful is the visit breaks up the monotony of days spent alone. Even if there is no physical interaction, having a visitor with a loveable animal outside the window can be uplifting. 

Q: What about so-called robot pets for seniors – can they substitute for pets, especially during a time when real animals can’t visit?

A: Whether robot pets can be used to replace live animals is an important question, especially since robot pets were being provided to some older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. In my survey during the COVID-19 pandemic, respondents were asked whether, given the choice, they would choose a robot pet or a live animal. Out of 102 people who answered this question, not one of them said they would choose a robot pet. When asked why, they said things like “it is not about the companionship alone. It is about the emotional connection. To get that from a robotic creation is not love. We need the love that comes with these pets.” It was very clear that robots are not the same as a living breathing animal. Providing a robot pet is like giving a stuffed animal. It might be nice to cuddle, but it does not provide the reciprocal relationship that most animal lovers seek from a companion animal.