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The perceived impact of the first UK Covid-19 lockdown on companion animal welfare and behaviour: a mixed-method study of associations with owner mental health

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JournalInternational Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH)
DateAccepted/In press - 6 Jun 2021
DatePublished (current) - 7 Jun 2021
Issue number11
Volume18
Number of pages17
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

Background: Companion animals may be a positive presence for their owners during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the welfare of a companion animal is strongly influenced by the behaviour of their owners, as well as their physical and social environment. We aimed to investigate the reported changes in companion animal welfare and behaviour and to examine the association between these changes and companion animal owners’ mental health. Methods: A cross-sectional online survey of UK residents over 18 years of age was conducted between April and June 2020 (n=5,926). The questionnaire included validated, bespoke items measuring outcomes related to mental health, the hu-man-animal bond and reported changes in animal welfare and behaviour. The final item of the survey invited open-ended free-text responses, allowing participants to describe experiences associated with human-animal relationships during the first UK lockdown phase. Results: Animal owners made up 89.8% of the sample (n=5,323), of whom 67.3% reported changes in their animal’s welfare and behaviour during the first lockdown phase (n=3,583). These reported changes were reduced to a positive (0-7) and negative (0-5) welfare scale, following principal component analysis (PCA) of 17 items. Participants reported more positive changes for cats, whereas more negative changes were reported for dogs. Thematic analysis identified three main themes relating to the positive and negative impact on companion animals of the Covid-19 pandemic. Generalised linear models indicated that companion animal owners with poorer mental health scores pre-lockdown reported fewer negative changes in animal welfare and behaviour. However, companion animal owners with poorer mental health scores since lockdown reported more changes, both positive and negative, in animal welfare and behaviour. Conclusion: Our findings extend previous insights into perceived welfare and behaviour changes on a very limited range of species to a wider a range of companion animals. Owner mental health status has a clear, albeit small, effect on companion animal welfare and behaviour.

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