The lockdown seems to have made cats more loving as pets, a new study unexpectedly reports.
Being locked inside definitely did a number on many people's mental health and general well-being. As we're going back to our more regular ways, researchers are hard at work examining how this experience impacted all of us. And some of them are also looking at how it impacted our pets.
One such study from the Universities of York and Lincoln in the UK investigated the changes people perceived in their companion's welfare and behavior during the lockdown. It further looked at any association between these changes and variations in the daily life, behavior, and reported mental health of the owners. From all species of pets involved in this study, cats seemed to have become more affectionate than the rest, judging by the percentage of owners who reported this change in their pet. Cats also seemed to exhibit more positive changes in welfare and behavior than dogs.
"While it has long been recognized that pets can enrich the lives of humans, the welfare of a companion animal is strongly influenced by the behavior of their owners, as well as their physical and social environment," said Professor Daniel Mills, animal behavioral specialist at the University of Lincoln and corresponding author of the paper.
"During lockdown changes experienced by our pets may have included having owners around for more of the day due to furlough or working from home, alterations to their daily routine and limited access to animal-related services, such as training classes or veterinary care."
The survey included over 5,000 reports from UK pet owners regarding the mental health of the animal, the quality of the bond between them and the owner, and any apparent changes in the pet's welfare and behavior. The data was collected during the 2020 lockdown. Over two-thirds (67.3%) of them reported seeing such changes during the first phase of the lockdown, and the team statistically grouped these reports into separate positive and negative welfare scales.
Overall, the reports suggested that owners who had poorer mental health scores pre-lockdown saw fewer negative changes after the quarantine, but pets with poorer mental health by the same time saw the most reported changes, both positive and negative, in animal welfare and behavior. The team's hypothesis is that these individuals were more likely to offer more attention to their pets following the lockdown, which means more engagement with their animals. In turn, this can help foster some changes in the pet's welfare and behavior, but likely also increases the likelihood of owners observing and reporting changes.
Still, roughly one third of cats and dogs seem not to have been affected by the first lockdown. Roughly 40% of individuals in other species seem to have been unaffected on average, the team adds, and many individual animals seem to enjoy better welfare after the fact. Between 10–15% of all owners explained that their animal appeared more energetic and playful. Between 20-30% said their pet seems more relaxed.
In aggregate, for every owner who reported overall negative changes in their pet's welfare and behavior, at least three owners reported seeing improvements.
"Our findings extend previous insights into the perceived welfare and behavior changes on a very limited range of species to a much wider range of companion animal species," Professor Mills said. Owner mental health status has a clear effect on companion animal welfare and behavior, and is clearly something we need to consider when we seek to do what is best for the animals we care for.
Personally, I take the findings as a sign that a) my cat really does love me and spending time with me does her good, and I can't but be happy. But it's also a reminder of just how many meaningful things we miss in life when we're busy chasing only money, careers, and success. Time is one of the, if not the, most precious resources we have to spend in life. Maybe, sometimes, something major needs to come around and remind us that it's better spent, perhaps, not in the office, but with the ones we love. Be they furry and pawed or not.
The paper "The Perceived Impact of The First UK COVID-19 Lockdown on Companion Animal Welfare and Behaviour: A Mixed-Method Study of Associations with Owner Mental Health" has been published in the journal International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.