Pets provide a social interaction that we miss

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The caring touch of pets can help provide mental health benefits similar to those of human touch. Ryan J Lane / Getty Images
  • Many people feel “deprived of touch” during the pandemic.
  • Touch has been shown to improve well-being.
  • Caring contact with animals can offer similar benefits to human contact.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

Although physical distancing can help stop the spread of COVID-19, limiting human-to-human contact also eliminates the possibility of touching.

“We ran a Facebook survey linked to Survey Monkey in April during the US lockdown and found that 60% of people were reporting touch deprivation,” said Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the Leonard M. Miller School. of Medicine at the University of Miami.

“It wasn’t just people who lived alone; it was also those who lived with people, ”she said.

The survey also found that 32% of people said they touched their partner a lot and 21% said they touched their children a lot.

“I was hoping that if people were confined to each other they would do more back massages, hugs and touches,” she said.

Field credits the use of technology to prevent people living in the same premises from touching each other more often.

This awareness is supported by a study she conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic. By observing people at the airport gates, his team found that social interactions were weak.

“Only 3% of the time were people touching each other if they were traveling together, but 68% of the time they were on their cell phones,” Field said. “Social media contributed to the deprivation of touch before COVID-19, and the virus only exacerbates it because we can’t kiss or greet people like we did before. “

Pets may be the answer to touch deprivation, said Janette Young, PhD, senior lecturer in health sciences at the University of South Australia.

“COVID-19 put touch in the spotlight, revealing how much touch we need to keep ourselves mentally well,” Young said. “Finding ways to ensure that hunger to touch is not ruled out again and that people are not denied safe contact between species is a fundamental lesson we should learn from 2020.”

Young led a team of researchers who conducted a study on the benefits of owning pets during the pandemic. Of the 32 participants, more than 90 percent talked about touching in relation to their pets, most of the time spontaneously.

Participants said touching their pets gives them comfort, relaxation and familiarity. They shared examples of dogs and cats touching them when they felt distressed, sad, or traumatized.

Many participants also noted their pets’ ability to “know” when they were not feeling well and to want to be physically closer to them. Some participants mentioned birds, sheep, horses and even reptiles as pets that touch each other.

“People need to touch and maybe a lot of the animals we keep as pets too,” Young said. “Our close, caring and touching relationships with animals can at least in part fill the gap that many people experience.”

Field said Young’s feeling is realistic when thinking about the physiological effects of petting an animal.

“When people stroke a dog or a cat, they apply pressure. You can feel a cat’s vertebrae or a dog’s ribs when you stroke them with pressure, ”Field said. “They are getting a pet massage, in a sense.”

The benefits of human massage apply to both animal and human, she added.

“We have studies that show that the person doing the massage earns as much as the person receiving the massage in terms of stress hormones like lowered cortisol and serotonin – the body’s natural neurotransmitter for pain and depression. – increasing, ”Field said. .

Massage studies show that when pressure is applied, physiological responses take effect as pressure receptors slow down the nervous system. This lowers the heart rate and blood pressure. Field said research shows brain waves associated with relaxation are also affected.

“The ironic thing is that we are here in the middle of a viral pandemic and one of the things that can reduce the risk of contagion or contracting the virus is the stimulation of the pressure receptors,” said Field.

“People can get this stimulation from those they live with by rubbing them etc., but they can also get it from pets,” she said.

It is possible to apply human touch findings to animals, she said, because there is already documented literature that shows people with pets have better immune function and live longer.

“I’m sure it’s because of the effects of the interaction, which is very physical, like animals sitting on your knees, petting and rubbing, which can improve your immune function and therefore extend your life,” said said Field. “While it hasn’t been measured in dogs and cats, it should be.”

Young agreed, noting that the benefit of contact with animals is overlooked.

“If it makes such a big difference for premature babies (almost 50% increase in survival rates when hugs are included in hygiene care),” Young said, “then it seems clear that touching it caring must be somehow important beyond childhood. How? ‘Or’ What? For how long? When? Where? Why? All questions for further research.

Until then, she’s encouraging contact with animals and calling on the company to start “making sure people have pet relationships and tactile access.”

She hopes relationships with pets are given special priority in hospitals, hospices and care facilities where people are isolated.

If you’re not a fan of pets or if allergies keep you from owning one, Field said there are ways to get the same effects from touch.

“I tell anyone who feels deprived of touch that many of the same physiological effects can come from pressure receptor stimulation,” Field said.

In that sense, walking around the room will stimulate the pressure receptors in your feet, and brushing your body in the shower will stimulate the receptors in your body, she said.

Exercises such as crunches, stretching, or yoga can also stimulate pressure receptors.

“Most of the exercise will stimulate the pressure receptors,” Field said. “So while you may not be feeling the emotional or physiological effects of having someone around you who you love to physically affection you, at least you can get the physical effects from exercise.”

At the very least, she encourages the elbow bump when she greets others.

“I have noticed that people smile, laugh and maintain eye contact when they hit their elbows. It’s a social interaction, ”she said. “And I think it’s going to hang around for a while.”

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