During the COVID-19 pandemic, an unlikely hero has emerged: pets. “In addition to helping us navigate an increasingly frightening and lonely world, our pets can also help us manage the interpersonal relationships inside our own walls.”
As COVID-19 raged across the world, stranding Americans in their home and away from loved ones and social interaction, an unlikely hero emerged: our pets. As we stayed home, these family members have taken center stage as many people struggle with mental health during the isolation of stay-at-home orders and quarantines.
“When the pandemic hit, uncertainty moved in with all of us,” says Adrienne A, walking two bouncing rescue dogs on a quiet bridge in Georgia. “Doggy cuddling makes it better.”
And outside of Washington DC, a blonde woman throws a stick into a stream while her rescued Australian shepherd scampers after it. Jill S, a government employee, laments the endless nature of the lockdown. “At least Miro gives us a reason to get out in nature and be able to forget for a while.”
Like Adrienne and Jill, many of us are grateful to have animals to cuddle with and to give us reasons to get outside. And our pet’s contribution to our well-being during the pandemic goes deeper than that—it’s firmly rooted in science.
There is no doubt that the virus and the lockdowns necessary to combat it have created a shared trauma across the world. Afraid of the unknown and shut off from our daily routines, a low-grade panic invaded our shared consciousness. Dr. Cori Bussolari, a psychologist and professor at the University of San Francisco whose work centers on trauma, notes that a common reaction to trauma is to isolate ourselves and disconnect from others. While the virus has made this a necessity for physical health, studies show isolation negatively affects our mental health.
In many cases, pets stepped in to fill the void.
“Animals,” says Bussolari, “see, hear, and value us no matter the circumstances. They provide ‘unconditional positive regard.’ It’s a corrective emotional experience which also helps us feel more connected in the world.” Animals can create that connection and offer unconditional, uncomplicated love, especially during this challenging time.
In addition to helping us navigate an increasingly frightening and lonely world, our pets can also help us manage the interpersonal relationships inside our own walls. With more people working and learning from home, family relationships are easily strained by close quarters. Suzanne Phillips, a psychologist and couples therapist, says relationships with our pets also serve as role models for improving our human relationships. With stress levels high, quarters tight, and nerves fraying by the day, we’ve never needed their assistance more.
Phillips elaborates that with our pets, we work on a theory of “presumed innocence.” When they misbehave, we don’t assume that they do so to hurt us and we tend to forgive them quickly. We don’t hold grudges against our pets or bring up assumed slights weeks later. When we bring that presumption of innocence into our human relationships—when we don’t assume our partner or child set out to hurt us—we are more likely to forgive each other and put disagreements behind us. These are crucial skills when personal space is in short supply.
[Also read: “5 Spiritual Lessons We Learn From Cats.”]
While researching my book Mutual Rescue, I saw one thread that linked many of the individuals whose lives were altered by adopting their companion animal: a renewed sense of purpose. As we have faced a national crisis of purpose—trying to figure out not just how to keep going during these uncertain times, but also how to create meaning in our lives—companion animals are again leading the way. Because as the virus spread through the country, so did an epidemic of a different type: kindness.
Across the country, shelters and rescues saw unprecedented numbers of applications from people wanting to foster animals during the shutdown. “Normally in a two-week period, we would get fifty foster applications,” Heather Owen, Director of One Tail At A Time Shelter in Chicago says. “The first two weeks of shelter in place we got over fifteen hundred. And they just keep coming in.”
It is a trend that is repeating across the country as shelters see thousands of people who have never fostered or volunteered before step forward to open their homes to pets in need. The turnout has been so great that shelters in Texas, Arizona, and California started drive-through foster pickups and saw hundreds of people line up in cars to take whichever animal needed them the most.
According to recent research by Dr. Bussolari, this uptick in fostering during COVID-19 is a win/win. She’s currently conducting a study on the psychological effects of pets in the home during the lockdown and initial data shows it’s just as beneficial for the pet as the person. “Our findings show having a dog or cat significantly decreases feelings of depression, isolation, anxiety, and loneliness since the restrictions were put in place.”
Plus, as Adrienne and Jill will confirm, you can’t underestimate the power of puppy cuddles or a walk in the woods. I think one of my favorite authors, Eckhart Tolle, perhaps put it best: “The vital function that pets fulfill in this world hasn’t been fully recognized. They keep millions of people sane.”
Especially during COVID-19, I couldn’t possibly agree more.
Keep reading about pets and COVID-19: “Pets and Coronavirus: What We Need to Know.”