A new study suggests that the extra time being pampered by their humans during lockdowns has made many cats appear more affectionate. This may be a surprise for some, given cats' often unfair reputation of being aloof.

Many of us know first-hand how valuable our pets have been during the weirdness and stress of the pandemic and associated lockdowns. Studies have backed this up, showing pets have provided stress relief and reduced loneliness, no matter what species they are.

"I have two rescue cats - one was very skittish, but she is much calmer now I am home every day," said one study participant.

A team led by researchers from the Universities of York and Lincoln in the UK surveyed 5,323 people with companion animals, including horses, reptiles, birds and fish, along with the usual suspects - cats and dogs - to see what effect the massive changes in human routines have had on them.

Over 65 percent of the participants reported changes in their companion animals' behavior during their first lockdown in 2020. Participants answered several sets of questions about their animals, their own mental health, and their relationships. They were also invited to leave further comments.

Overall, many owners reported improvements in their companion animals, but out of all the species, dogs displayed the most negative changes.

"My dog has become a lot more needy and howls if I leave the house without him, even if it's just to do some gardening and he can see me," explained another pet owner. "Going back to work will be very hard on him."

About 10 percent of dog, cat, and horse owners noted their companion animals were unsettled by the changes, but up to 30 percent found they seemed more relaxed and up to 15 percent observed their pets being more energetic and playful. About a third of owners, mostly the pet parents of dogs and cats, noticed that their animal companions followed them around more than usual.

A big problem dog owners identified were changes in exercise routines and socialization.

"My dog misses the socializing; he doesn't understand what has happened," said a survey respondent. "He is a very friendly Labrador and doesn't understand why people won't make a fuss of him anymore, people cross the road to avoid him."

There were also some cats that were missing their usual interactions too.

"My cat is a registered therapy cat. We are missing our visits; we are looking forward to returning to visit his fans. He is missing all his worship and fuss."

University of York health scientist Emily Shoesmith and colleagues also looked at owners' mental health before and during the lockdowns to see if that was associated with any of the changes.

"Our findings indicate that poorer mental health may increase attention paid to one's companion animal," said Shoesmith.

"Empathic engagement may increase reporting of any changes, both positive and negative, in animal welfare and behavior."

Interestingly, pets with owners who had poorer mental health scores before lockdown didn't observe as many changes in their pets during lockdown as those who found their mental health declined during lockdown.

"Owner mental health status has a clear effect on companion animal welfare and behavior," explained University of Lincoln clinical animal behaviorist Daniel Mills. "[It's] clearly something we need to consider when we seek to do what is best for the animals we care for."

The team suspects perception of increased affection seen in 35.9 percent of cats is possibly due to changes in owner behavior, with the humans seeking increased company and close physical contact. This may have encouraged cats to seek more treats and other resources from their owners, they suggest.

Shoesmith and colleagues note there are many limitations involved in survey studies such as these; for example, self-reported answers mean they may reflect the owner's state of mind at the time, rather than an objective answer. Those surveyed also do not accurately represent the UK population - by far most of the participants were female.

However, this latest study contributes to others that also suggest changes in our habits have a significant impact on the animals we share our lives with. It also demonstrates the value of spending more time with our beloved pets - they clearly appreciate it, too!

This research was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.