Lock downs, job losses and social isolation have been the hallmarks of 2020 as Covid-19 tightens its grip infecting millions and leaving a mounting death toll, but also denying American workers the most basic sense—touch. Touch is commonly an overlooked sense, yet studies have shown that touch deprivation reduces survival rates of pre-term babies and contributes to stunted mental and emotional development in institutionalized orphaned humans. For people who experience less social contact, touch deprivation can impact quality of life. While virtual connections have helped with social distancing to a degree, the absence of human-to-human contact has left many people craving a pat on the back, handshake or hug. Now, a new study shows how our furry friends have stepped into the breach for many people, providing much-needed comfort via cuddles, pats and a constant physical presence.
Benefits of Non-Human Touch
In November 2019, I wrote a piece for Forbes.com about a nonprofit New York-based program, Puppies Behind Bars (PBB), and how the program mitigates PTSD in first responders. Working with war veterans, first responders and convicted felons over the years, founder of PBB Gloria Gilbert Stoga, said she has seen how dogs truly change people: “I know it sounds like a cliché, but the truth is I have seen, time and time again, tough people become soft, scared people become confident, quiet people become leaders and angry people become content.
The use of pet therapy in mental health isn’t new, but it’s under used. Numerous studies show that animal-assisted therapy reduces pain and anxiety among patients with cancer, heart disease and PTSD. Observing an aquarium or stroking a bird, cat or dog lowers blood pressure and relaxes you. Furry friends keep us from getting lonely and depressed, keep us engaged and feel cared about. The tactile stimulation from petting an animal releases endorphins and deactivates the stress response. According to one study of four million people worldwide, dog ownership was as effective as medication, lowering the risk of dying early by 24%. Another study of 336,000 men and women found that dog owners had better health after suffering a major heart attack, compared to non-owners.
A new study published by researchers at the University of South Australia points to the lifesaving role that pets have played in 2020 and why organizations need to sit up and take notice. The research team interviewed 32 people and found that human-to-non-human contact, such as that between animal guardians and their pets, may assist in promoting health and well-being when human contact is limited due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Over 90% of the respondents said touching their pets both comforted and relaxed them, and the pets seemed to need it as well. They also cited examples of dogs and cats touching their owners when they were distressed, sad or traumatized. Many people referenced pets’ innate ability to just “know” when their human counterparts weren’t feeling well and to want to get physically close to them. Interviewees mentioned not just dogs and cats but birds, sheep, horses and even reptiles that reciprocate touch.
According to Dr. Janet Young, lead researcher, physical touch is a sense that has been taken for granted until Covid-19. “In a year when human contact has been so limited and people have been deprived of touch, the health impacts on our quality of life have been enormous,” Dr Young said. “To fill the void of loneliness and provide a buffer against stress, there has been a global upsurge in people adopting dogs and cats from animal shelters during lock downs. Breeders have also been inundated with demands for puppies quadrupling some waiting lists.”
It’s estimated that more than half the global population share their lives with one or more pets. The health benefits have been widely reported, but little data exists regarding the specific benefits that pets bring to humans in terms of touch. “Pets seem to be particularly important when people are socially isolated or excluded, providing comfort, companionship and a sense of self-worth,” Dr Young explained. “Touch is an understudied sense, but existing evidence indicates it is crucial for growth, development and health, as well as reducing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. It is also thought that touch may be particularly important for older people as other senses decline.”
Furry Friends In The Workplace?
Humans have an innate need to connect with others. When that need is taken away, it can have a negative impact on their mental health. In the era of social distancing and lock downs, pets might be the only living beings that many people are able to touch and draw comfort from. The researchers concluded that pet presence needs to be considered from a policy angle to mitigate some of the mental and physical stressors people are having.
As mentioned earlier pets are being used with first responders and also in nursing homes and hospitals. Maybe the next step is to bring more pets into the workplace to fill the void of human contact when the workforce moves back into the office. Imagine having a large aquarium you can watch between emails or being able to stroke a friendly bird, cat or dog between meetings. Based on the research so far, the American workforce would be less lonely, depressed or stressed out. And employees would be more engaged and productive and feel more cared about.