One of the few bright spots early in the pandemic was that numerous animal shelters across the country reported that they didn’t have enough animals to keep up with the demand. In some consistently overcrowded shelters and humane rescue groups, the number of requests for dog adoptions doubled. Newfound free time allowed many to take in a new pet, something that may not have seemed feasible in the comparatively fast-paced, pre-pandemic life.
Caring for a pet provided emotional support, comfort, structure and joy during a time that was difficult for everyone. Even as the country continues to open and schedules a return to their pre-COVID norm, household pets can continue to be a source of happiness for their families.
How Pets Support Mental Health
For many people, the 2020 lockdown was their first experience with social isolation. Those who transitioned to working or doing schoolwork from home often reported feelings of loneliness and increases in symptoms of depression, anxiety and mood disorders. Going months without seeing family, friends, coworkers and classmates was a negative experience for many, leading some to find a four-legged friend to fill in the gaps. The benefits of caring for a pet are widely known, and pet adoption during COVID provided invaluable company for millions of people.
1. Pets Help Establish Routines
Routines are important for helping to ensure that necessary daily tasks are accomplished. They can help individuals cope with change, maintain healthy habits and cut down on stress. However, for many who were suddenly working from home for the first time, the idea of life without a strict schedule seemed appealing. Before long, the lack of structure caused the days to run together and good habits—along with mental health—started to slide.
Taking care of pets requires maintaining a routine. They need to be fed and cleaned up after daily, and they need regular exercise to enjoy optimal health. During the lockdown, pets helped many people maintain a daily structure that would have otherwise been lacking.
2. Pets Provide a Listening Ear
Dogs, cats and birds have lived alongside humans for thousands of years and are uniquely sensitive to their owners’ emotions and can pick up on feelings of sadness and stress. Pets are great listeners that provide their services without judgment or unsolicited advice. Confiding in their pet often allows the individual to work through troubling thoughts and difficult emotions. Sometimes, just saying things aloud provides a fresh perspective and can offer relief.
3. Pets Provide Comedic Relief
Pets are effortlessly funny, whether they’re chasing their tails, playing with their favorite toys or getting into mischief. During the lockdown when many were missing friends and family or navigating the loss of a loved one, pets provided a much-needed distraction.
4. Taking Care of a Pet Correlates with Lower Stress Levels
Reduced income, social isolation and working through loss resulted in high levels of stress for millions of people. While having a pet doesn’t make any of these problems go away, studies have shown that interacting with animals decreases the individual’s cortisol levels (the stress-related hormone) and lowers their blood pressure. This can help lessen some of the stress brought on by factors outside of the individual’s control.
5. Pets Help Reduce Loneliness During Isolation
As any animal lover can attest, pets provide valuable companionship and can be sources of comfort and support. Studies have shown that the emotional bond between an owner and their pet can be just as intense as that of human relationships and may offer the same benefits, including an increase in a sense of purpose, a happiness boost and an improved sense of self-worth. They may not completely replace the need for social interactions, but they staved off boredom and loneliness for many.
Transitioning Back to Normal Life
Owning a pet is a big responsibility, and it’s one that too many people felt they couldn’t take on due to long hours at the office. While it was once difficult to imagine life returning to pre-pandemic normal, for many, it has. Schools and workplaces are reopening, those who were laid off have new job opportunities and those who had hours cut are returning to their former schedules.
Many who adopted pets during the lockdown when their schedules were open are suddenly questioning whether they still have the time to commit to caring for a pet. Shelters are beginning to report that dogs that were adopted in 2020 are beginning to find their way back. Some owners didn’t understand the characteristics of their dog’s breed and realized too late that it wasn’t a good fit for their lifestyle or family dynamics. Others felt that they didn’t have time to care for their pet once their work schedules returned to normal.
Taking an animal to a shelter is a much better option than abandoning them or selling them to a stranger online, but it’s still a confusing and traumatic experience for the pet.
Fortunately, with the right training and preparation, pets can happily adjust to their owner’s return to work. As many owners learned during the lockdown, dogs and cats spend the vast majority of their time sleeping, with brief periods of eating and playing. Fortunately, much of this can be done without human interaction.
Consider Hiring a Dog Trainer
For those with unruly dogs or poorly adjusted cats, connecting with a dog trainer or animal behaviorist can be a lifeline. This is particularly true if the animal is aggressive or has particularly bad manners that are disruptive to everyday life. The individual may consider contacting the shelter where they got their pet for recommendations for trainers or behavioralists. Some shelters even have financial assistance programs to help owners pay for training and other expenses such as food and vet care.
Prepare for Separation Anxiety
Pets that have become accustomed to having their favorite people close by all day may show signs of separation anxiety when the house is empty during the day. Common signs of separation anxiety are excessive meowing or barking, changes in eating and grooming habits and becoming destructive. To help their pets deal with changes, owners may consider having a safe, comfy place for their pets to stay during the day. This may be a room or an appropriately sized crate filled with toys and other enrichment items. Playing soothing music or running a sound machine can also help the pet feel comfortable.
Make the Most of Time Together
Before and after work, pet owners can make the most of their time with their pet by committing a few minutes towards play, bonding time or doing a little training together. Even if it’s only 15 minutes per day, it can go a long way in heading off behavioral problems.
Seeking Professional Help for Mental Illnesses
While pets provide fantastic support for their owners and even help reduce symptoms of depression or anxiety, they aren’t a replacement for professional mental health services. If you’re struggling with mental health symptoms, help is available. Call (844) 794-0814 to talk to an intake specialist and learn about your treatment options.