Singapore: 89% of cat, dog owners said pets helped improve mental health during pandemic

In August last year, amid the gloom and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, senior legal counsel Adeline Chung and her husband welcomed a little bundle of joy into their lives — an energetic Irish corgi named Whiskey.

Since then, the dog has changed not only the couple’s lives, but those of Ms. Chung’s parents as well.

“He’s brought unbelievable life and joy to the family. My parents are young again … I’ve never seen my dad smile the way he does when he plays with Whiskey,” said the 37-year-old with a smile.

Ms. Chung is not the only one with such sentiments. In a survey conducted here by multinational animal health company Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health Singapore, 89% of respondents said that their pets had a positive impact on their mental well-being during the pandemic.

The survey was carried out among 1,018 cat and dog owners here from Oct. 8 to Nov. 27 this year. Those surveyed were broadly, but not 100%, representative of the population here.

Dr. Armin Wiesler, Boehringer Ingelheim’s regional managing director and head of animal health for South-east Asia and South Korea, said: “With the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become even more evident that the lives of animals and humans are interconnected in deep and complex ways, where pets have shown to play an important part in supporting humans physically, mentally and emotionally.”

Dr. Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist from Gleneagles Hospital, told The Straits Times that before the pandemic, small-scale studies had already suggested that animal-assisted therapy can decrease anxiety and improve the quality of life for some, including the elderly and those with chronic mental illnesses.

While the pandemic has negatively impacted the mental health of many in a myriad of ways, Dr. Lim said that there are many ways pets can improve mental health as well.

First, pets can help alleviate loneliness, especially in those who have no other company.

Second, some may feel that having a pet brings meaning to their lives.

Third, pets can take the focus off sufferings one is facing, shifting it to the responsibility of caring for another being.

Fourth, studies have shown that tactile stimulation — like petting a dog — and interactions with pets can reduce stress hormones and enhance oxytocin, a feel-good hormone.

Fifth, owners also often have to walk their dogs or perform activities with them, which helps to promote exercising.

Finally, Dr. Lim added: “Pets are much easier to establish a relationship [with] compared to a human, where there may be fears of judgment and rejection.”

Pet owner Cheng Limin agreed. The 37-year-old revenue director, who owns a mini dachshund named Chorizo, said: “Humans are great, but they ask you a lot of questions you’re not ready to answer. But a pet really gives you that unconditional support.”

Ms. Cheng moved back to Singapore from Australia in April 2020, when the nation had just entered its circuit breaker period.

“It was quite a difficult time … having [Chorizo] with me was very comforting — dogs are very sensitive to your moods, and she was always with me whenever I needed to process anything,” said Ms. Cheng, who lives alone.

Both she and Ms. Chung said their pets have helped them become more outgoing, as they have to leave the house to walk them.

“But for Whiskey, we’d be spending a lot more time on Netflix,” quipped Ms. Chung, who added that her dog has also added structure to her fast-paced life, leading to her eating at more regular hours and taking breaks to care for him.

About one-third of those surveyed acquired their pets during and after the circuit breaker. ST earlier reported an uptick in people here interested in adopting or fostering pets during the pandemic.

Dr. Kenneth Tong, head veterinarian and founder of Animal and Avian Veterinary Clinic, said that with children spending more time at home during the pandemic, some parents may decide to get a pet as they believe their kids will have more time for it, or to keep them distracted.

But he cautioned: “Don’t get a pet on impulse. A pet is for life.”

And while he wholeheartedly agreed that pets can have a positive impact on their owners’ mental and physical health, he emphasized that getting a pet should not be seen as a “quick fix.”

“The pandemic will be short-lived … The animal is for life,” he said, adding that potential pet owners should think of the long term.

Those who get a pet should read up more about the animal first, including its species and lifespan, and consider how much time and space they have to care for it.