Researchers are just figuring out what pet owners have known for a long time: having a pet is good for your mental health. This is especially true during the prolonged social isolation necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Living with a pet or pets can be a buffer against psychological stress, as a recent study by British researchers from the University of York and the University of Lincoln shows.

Nearly 6,000 residents of the United Kingdom responded to a survey conducted between April and June of 2020. The questionnaire used validated items to measure respondents’ mental health, wellbeing and loneliness; and the kinds of bonds and interactions people had with their pets. All the participants were over 18 years of age; nearly 90 percent of them lived with pets — from dogs and cats to birds and fish.

Pet owners overwhelmingly agreed that having a pet offered emotional support during the pandemic. More than 90 percent of respondents said having a pet helped them cope with social isolation. But pets did more than serve as a buffer for stress. Nearly all — 96 percent — of the pet owners said their pet helped them stay fit and active.

People need to appreciate their pets’ needs too.

The picture was more mixed for pets, however. Sixty-eight percent of pet owners worried about their animal companions during lockdown. COVID restrictions can mean that pets don’t get as much exercise as they are used to. Restrictions can also make it more difficult for pet owners to access veterinary care.

Pet owners were also concerned about who would look after their pet if they fell ill. “It will be important to ensure that pet owners are appropriately supported in caring for their pet during the pandemic,” said lead author, Elena Ratschen, of the Department of Health Sciences University of York, in a statement.

It didn’t matter what kind of pet a person had; owners were equally devoted to their pets. “We also discovered that in this study, the strength of the emotional bond with pets did not statistically differ by animal species, meaning that people in our sample felt on average as emotionally close to, for example, their guinea pig as they felt to their dog,” added Ratschen.

“This work …indicates how having a companion animal in your home can buffer against some of the psychological stress associated with lockdown,” said co-author, Daniel Mills, from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln.

“However, it is important that everyone appreciates their pet's needs too, as our other work shows failing to meet these can have a detrimental effect for both people and their pets,” Mills said. Living with a pet can offer companionship, comfort and support, but having a pet is a commitment; and those who have never owned one should look into what is required before purchasing or adopting an animal.

Prospective pet owners could consider volunteering to walk dogs at the local shelter. Pet-sitting for a friend or neighbor is another way to see if you are ready to bring a pet into your life.

The study is published in PLOS ONE.