Ode to Our Pets in the Pandemic
Ode to Our Pets in the Pandemic

Ode to Our Pets in the Pandemic

Research shows that pets boost our mental health — but we already knew that!

Real Women, Real Stories

By Marika Lindholm


Full disclosure: I currently take care of 40 chickens, 12 baby chicks, three Swiss mountain dogs, a French bulldog, a cat with vertigo, and five children. In other words, I'm very busy taking care of people and animals while juggling work responsibilities. My pets demand attention, require a lot of clean up, and sometimes chew on my furniture, get sprayed by skunks or throw up in the house — and always shed everywhere.

They can be a nuisance, but now that our family is staying in place, I love them. They've transformed from creatures I tolerate into family members I adore. Our pets add structure to our day with walks, feeding and care. They snuggle and offer unconditional love, and mostly, they just make us laugh. I'm so grateful for their loving presence. It's not unusual to find one of my kids snuggled up with a dog, cat or even a chicken!

Stay-in-place orders throughout the country have sent pet adoptions through the roof. Folks who didn't have time or energy to care for a pet are now taking the plunge, adding dogs and cats of all ages to their families and discovering that there are mental health benefits to our furry friends.

"Every single person in our family has grown so much closer to our dog, Lady," shares Courtney O'Connell, a mom to three young daughters. "We walk her more than ever and finally have time to play with her and love her all day. With her unconditional love, she makes us so happy in these trying times."

Family therapist, Ilene English says that pets are providing a calming effect on her clients' fears and anxieties during this difficult time.

"This is particularly true for those sheltering alone. In a family situation, the family pet can help focus everyone's attention on the love each member has for the pet, which again is a wonderful way to refocus everyone's attention towards more positive feelings," English said.

Research shows that pet owners reap physical and psychological benefits, including reduced stress, lower rates of anxiety and a greater sense of well-being. One analysis reviewed 17 studies to explore the impact of pet ownership and determined that "qualitative studies illuminated the intensiveness of connectivity people with companion animals reported," ultimately finding that pets "provide benefits to those with mental health conditions."

Our pets help us cope

Now that we're all struggling with unprecedented threats to our financial, physical and emotional health, the positive impact of pets is even more powerful.

Dr. Cheryl M Meola, an animal assisted therapist who often works in a farm setting practicing equine therapy, concurs that this unprecedented historic moment has brought us closer to our pets.

"They've become emotional support animals, connecting us to feeding routines, the outside world and providing emotional connection," Meola said. She added that pets help us on a neurobiological level because petting and holding our animals causes our bodies to release oxytocin — also known as the "cuddle hormone" because it's released when people snuggle.

"One of my clients is a college student who is staying in place all by herself, but she has a dog," Meola explained. "During our sessions, I can see her pet the dog and it's clear that taking care of, and being connected with the dog, helps her psychological well-being."

Meola added that one of the more charming aspects of online therapy is that she's been able to virtually meet her clients' pets, which has helped her gain insight into their emotional state by observing the owner/pet interactions.

Your labrador might just lower your blood pressure

But pets don't just make us happier; they can actually make us healthier. Research from 2017 shows that the presence of a pet can lower heart rates and blood pressure and even prolong life. According to the 12-year study, dog ownership was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in single-person households and lower mortality in the general population. In fact, dog owners had a 20% lower risk of dying and 25% lower risk of dying from (CVD). Interestingly, owners of hunting dogs in particular had the lowest risk of CVD.

But most of us with pets don't need research to tell us about their capacity to provide support and lesson anxiety.

Dog lover, educator and author Juliet Cutler speaks passionately about her dog's ability to help her transcend the sadness and see the bigger picture.

"We lost our eldest dog, Nova, right before all this started," Cutler said. "This has left me with Leonard, our four-year-old lab, who is a tender and sensitive soul. We've grown closer both in our grief over Nova but also in this strange time of isolation."

Indeed, our pets are exactly what we need in this moment for so many reasons, some that defy rational explanation: They somehow know just how to make us feel better.

And now, I'm off to give all of our pets a grateful hug and a squeeze.

HealthyWomen reminds you to carefully consider the decision to adopt or foster a pet.

Resources:
The Humane Society of the United States
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Marika Lindholm founded the social platform Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere (ESME) to ignite a social movement of solo moms. A trained sociologist, she taught courses on inequality, diversity, and gender at Northwestern University for over a decade. Lindholm has published scholarly articles; been a regular contributor to Psychology Today, Working Mother, mindbodygreen, Ms. and Talkspace; and published essays and fiction in the Daily News, Elephant Journal, the Hill, Mutha, Silent Voices, Southern Indiana Review and Writer's Digest.

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