The researchers explored how touch-based interactions between people and their pets promote the human’s wellbeing and provide a method of “bridging the physical intimacy and connection gap” of COVID-19 in an Australian study published in the Journal of Behavioral Economics for Policy.

The study authors recruited 32 pet owners aged 59 years to 83 years (mean: 70 years) for qualitative semi-structured interviews via public calls on radio and snowball sampling. Pet diversity reflected global and Australian pet ownership patterns of dogs, cats, birds, and reptiles. The animals included sheep and 1 crocodile.

A total of 29 (10 males and 19 females, across the age range of the cohort) of the 32 pet owners spoke of touch in relation to their pets, mostly without prompting from the researchers. The researchers identified 2 themes, wellbeing (13 individuals, 15 responses) and reciprocity (18 individuals, 32 responses), and 3 subthemes: comfort (9 individuals, 11 responses), relaxation (4 individuals, 4 responses), and familiarity (2 individuals, 2 responses).

The participants often said they found it comforting to engage in touch-based interactions with their pets, and that comfort was relief from mental or physical illness. Many noted that pets seemed “to just know” when they were not feeling well and provide comfort via cuddles or sitting on their human companions. Several participants said that the animal’s individual personality and species both affected their ability to create a relaxing touch experience.

They also said they perceived their pets seeking touch-based interaction and that the animal’s “visible joy” in response to the touch brought them joy as well. The choice of an animal to engage with their humans also produced an emotive response, the researchers found in the case of 2 participants who spoke about their birds. Touch was integral to the concept of a pet for most participants, the researchers said.

This touch interaction is especially helpful when human-to-human touch interaction is limited during the COVID-19 pandemic, they said.

“Our research participants point to the manner in which pets may be bridging the physical intimacy and connection gap for many people at this time,” the researchers said. “The shelter-clearing masses may not have articulated this action as being about substituting human-human contact during COVID, but the research on touch, human bio-physiology and the descriptions of our participants suggest that they may well be interpreting the concept of ‘pet’ as touch-related too.”

The researchers concluded that doctors should incorporate the emotional benefits of close human-animal relationships in health care settings. Some ways to do that are providing pet support programs and pet visits. Residential aged facilities, which “rarely accommodate people’s pets,” and public policies should also further facilitate pet ownership, they said.

“Had more pets been living with their owners in aged care when COVID-19 restrictions were applied, a health-creating resource for their owners and other residents would have been in-situ,” the investigators said.

Disclosure: Several study authors declared affiliations with the pharmaceutical industry. Please see the original reference for a full list of authors’ disclosures.

Reference

Young J, Pritchard R, Nottle C and Banwell H. Pets, touch, and COVID-19: health benefits from non-human touch through times of stress. Journal of Behavioral Economics for Policy. 2020;4(COVID-19: S2): 25-33.