Study explores pandemic-specific challenges of pet ownership

Stories about the joy and benefits of pet ownership are a hallmark of the coronavirus pandemic. Less discussed are the hardships, stressors, and difficulties unique to caring for pets during this unprecedented period.

A study published in the journal Animals this past October did, in fact, find that pets were a source of stress for a majority of owners during the pandemic. Owner concerns included meeting a pet’s social and behavioral needs, frustration over a pet’s desire for attention and repeated interruptions during work, and changes to how veterinary services are delivered.

The study results are based on the responses of over 3,670 U.S. pet owners surveyed between April and July 2020.

Man trying to work at home, dog seeking attention

Pet attachment was significantly lower for owners who reported human-related concerns than for those who did not. These concerns included issues having to do with their own well-being and mental health, problems with working from home with pets, and difficulties balancing roles and responsibilities alongside pet care.

“Because strong attachment bonds between an owner and their pet are known to be protective of relinquishment, this is of particular concern,” the study states.

While the study format prevents the authors from inferring causation, they suggest the possibility that the human-animal bond was compromised because of the owner’s issues with the pet during the pandemic.

“Alternatively, the owner may be less tolerant of frustrations and difficulties with the pet as a result of their weaker attachment bond prior to the pandemic, possibly compromised mental health, and reduced support from people,” they write.

Many respondents mentioned or implied concerns about spreading SARS-CoV-2, thus impacting their daily behaviors related to pet care and contributing to problematic pet behaviors. Several respondents worried their pet was vulnerable to the virus or about the animal’s potential to spread SARS-CoV-2 to vulnerable people—despite no evidence of this occurring.

Concerns with changes in the delivery of veterinary services had to do with curbside drop-off and prohibitions against owners accompanying pets.

The Animals study authors suggest supporting owners in accessing resources to mitigate issues that may jeopardize the human-animal bond and increase the risk of relinquishment or abandonment. Especially important are resources and solutions for people who may be suffering from job loss, economic uncertainty, and housing insecurity.

“Results from this study indicate that pet owners experienced unique hardships related to changes in everyday life from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the authors write. “These hardships should be considered alongside the potential benefits found in other studies in order to manage pet owner expectations, prevent pet relinquishment, and more fully understand multifaceted human–companion animal relationships.”

Relatedly, the AVMA conducted a survey of over 2,000 pet owners in February and March 2021 asking pet owners about their experiences in 2020. The data, which collected pet and pet owner demographics, will be published later this year.

Preliminary results indicate that people who work remotely were eight times as likely to get a new pet in 2020. Other people likely to get a new pet in 2020 were homeowners with a household income over $100,000, those who were financially the same or better off since the pandemic began, and those under 45 who were married with children.

In addition, according to the AVMA survey, about 24% of dog owners and 35% of cat owners don’t bring their dogs or cats to see a veterinarian at least once a year. The primary reasons given relate to the perceived value of that care and affordability. Less than 10% of respondents said it was because of inconvenience or a veterinarian not being available to them.

Read the study in Animals, “The Concerns, Difficulties, and Stressors of Caring for Pets during COVID-19: Results from a Large Survey of U.S. Pet Owners.”

A version of this article appears in the March 1, 2022, print issue of JAVMA.