When my best friend and I signed a lease together in February, we always planned on eventually adopting a cat. We figured we’d move in, spend the spring getting settled and summer exploring the neighborhood, and then look for a furry new family member to join us in the late summer or fall.
Then came early March, and while we’d been hearing the word “pandemic” on the news, we still didn’t think we had much to worry about here in the U.S. But as we eyed a late-April move-in date and anxiously watched the coronavirus begin to dominate the news, we started to realize we’d need to change our plans. We bumped our moving date up two weeks, then two more. Finally, we decided we’d better just rent a car and get it done one day after work. As we carried in the final boxes, Chicago announced a shelter-in-place order that would go into effect in 48 hours.
We took a deep breath. We had just barely made it into our new apartment. But with the lockdown order, I received a frantic message from the animal shelter where I worked as a volunteer. All the animals would need foster homes or adopters within just days.
So much for settling in first. Our home was still in disarray, but we knew we could help cats in need. On a chilly Friday afternoon, my new housemate and I drove to the shelter to pick up a bonded pair of cats. We brought them back to our apartment that was filled with boxes and disassembled furniture. We hoped it wouldn’t be too stressful for them. The city went on lockdown the next morning.
With the world shut down around us, the four of us settled in together. Paczki and Pierogi supervised while we built furniture. They hid in newly unpacked boxes. They chased each other through our apartment, tackling new obstacles as the space filled up with furniture, decorations, and toys.
They made us laugh until our stomachs hurt with their clumsy, goofy antics. They purred and absorbed our tears in their fur when things outside seemed too scary. So many times, we looked at each other and asked, “How would we have gotten through this without them?”
We know we’re not the only ones.
2020 has been one heck of a ride. And for many of us, amid all the fear and anxiety and uncertainty, animals have been a source of joy, comfort, and stability.
What is it exactly about animals that gives them such an innate ability to help us get through hard times? We wanted to hear those stories, so we turned to some experts.
For three different perspectives, we asked workers at animals shelters, mental health professionals, and, of course, pet owners. Here’s what they all had to say about why animals are just what we needed to get through 2020.
“As mentioned by our adopters, animals are just the perfect companion during a pandemic.”
“During the months of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw an incredible peak in our cat adoption numbers. 334 more cats were adopted during these months than in 2019,” said Alejandra Peimbert, a media relations professional at the Houston Humane Society. “We did have 70 more dogs adopted as well in 2020 than 2019 but the difference in increase is still smaller than cats. We adopted a total of 1,345 dogs in 2019 during these months and 1,415 this year.”
Kelsey Dickerson, a media relations specialist at the Arizona Humane Society, said the same thing.
“The Arizona Humane Society (AHS) has seen an incredible outpouring of support from the community during the pandemic through both adoption and fostering,” she said. “Through its innovative Virtual Matchmaking Adoptions by Appointment program, AHS has seen incredible results including an average of 65 adoption appointments per day, as well as adopting out approximately 80% of the volume of pets through just one adoption location.”
Further north, at Wisconsin’s Brown Paws Rescue, there was yet another huge increase.
“Since March 13th we have had 702 pet adoptions. That’s 100 more than the same timeframe last year,” foster coordinator Elyse Laing told us.
But why were so many people adopting pets this year? Shelter workers have plenty of theories.
“As mentioned by our adopters, animals are just the perfect companion during a pandemic,” Peimbert said. “They give people unconditional love which people seek during dark and uncertain times such as these. Not everyone is quarantined with a huge family or roommates, and even so the joy and company that pets bring to a home is very special. All over the nation people are battling loneliness and pets minimize that feeling and give people a sense of purpose, something to take care of and wake up for in the morning.”
Dickerson added, “There are so many incredible benefits of owning a pet that go beyond the joy they bring to us each and every day. Studies prove that having a furry friend greatly improves our mental and physical health, especially during these times when quarantine and social distancing has led people to stay at home with decreased in-person interaction.”
“Animals give us hope and happiness, both of which are significant when navigating traumatic events.”
Shelter workers told us that animals can positively affect both our mental and physical health. But how?
For answers to that question, we turned to Elyse Laing, the foster coordinator at Brown Paws Rescue. Laing is also a licensed professional counselor, with six years of experience in helping patients improve their mental health. We asked Laing why people turn to animals in times of anxiety and uncertainty.
“I honestly think it is because of the comfort and joy animals bring to humans,” she said. “They provide companionship, security, stability, and familiarity during the pandemic. Humans are social animals and to be required to minimize our social interactions has been extremely difficult for some. Animals provide us that social stimulation and give us a reason to smile each day. They give us hope that there still is good in the world.”
“Animals give us hope and happiness, both of which are significant when navigating traumatic events,” Laing continued. “The comfort and security they provide us as humans can help us navigate anxiety provoking situations. They give us a distractor in an awkward situation, they provide sensory input, they help us engage in conversations with individuals we may not otherwise engage with-whether it be social anxiety, confidence, or desire holding us back. Animals can help us regulate our emotions and even help us be more mindful.”
In short, “Pet ownership helps us be independent, responsible, social, mindful, engaged, happy, structured, resilient, active, dependable, and the list goes on. All of these benefits have been studied and shown to better our mental health,” Laing said.
“Oh man, they have been a very welcome distraction from the world right now.”
Whitney Sharp is someone who adopted pets during the pandemic. Her miniature dachshunds, Fred and Ethel, are senior dogs who found their forever home with Sharp in May.
“We had been talking about it for a while and after spending the first 3 months of quarantine getting to know all of the neighborhood dogs that were walking up and down the street, and knowing that at least one of us was going to be working from home indefinitely, it seemed like a good time,” Sharp said. “A huge factor in adopting this bonded pair in particular, was the social unrest going on within the country, and feeling like we wanted to do something altruistic. Rescuing our ‘senior wieners’ felt like a small, but impactful way to give back and spread some joy and positivity within our community.”
What Sharp didn’t expect was just how helpful the two dogs would be in navigating all the uncertainty of this year.
“Oh man, they have been a very welcome distraction from the world right now,” she said. “Whether it’s forcing me to develop routines and structure to my day, encouraging me to get outside when I feel like I need to be tied to my computer, giving us an excuse to explore new parks and hikes around the state and being so cute and cuddly that for a little while, nothing else matters.”
The benefits certainly aren’t exclusive to those of us who adopted our pets during the pandemic, though. Mary Harris has been a dog owner (and regular dog foster parent) for years. During all the struggles and hardship this year brought, she said her dogs, Hoot, Sunny, and Sparkles, were a constant source of comfort and perspective.
“This year has shown what great friends dogs are. When you can’t go to a bar or a dance or on a date dogs are there for all three, and then some. Dogs become your social life,” she said.
Harris said she’s always had a soft spot for rescue pets, because of how grateful they are to have a safe and loving home. But animal lovers can reap the benefits of having any pet, especially with more uncertainty likely coming at us in 2021.
“They offer support, entertainment, and unconditional love without saying a word (except WOOF),” she said.
And for anyone who’s been considering a pet but hasn’t actually taken the plunge yet? Here’s what Harris had to say.
“Do it! Rescue dogs can be challenging at first; they’ve usually been through a lot and need time and training. But watching them come out of their shell and seeing their tails wag when they realize they’re home is a feeling you cannot replicate.”