Sunday Scaries

Owning a pet during coronavirus has a "buffering" effect on mental health

Pet owners aren't surprised by new research on animal-human bonds and coronavirus lockdowns.

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In April, Naomi Mishkin, an artist and designer, could hear the constant sound of sirens from her apartment in Brooklyn, New York. She runs a fashion line, Naomi Nomi, and it had pivoted to making masks when the pandemic hit. There were stretches of days where she wouldn’t leave home, glued to her computer and phone, moving thousands and thousands of masks to customers while ambulances sped by.

Then, her partner said it was about time they finally got a dog. Now, she shares her space with Lady, a Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy.

“There were definitely days in June and July when the only reason I left my house was because my dog needed to go out,” Naomi tells me. “Having a dog around reminds you of your own, basic needs. Everything I’m going to say about her is totally cheesy, but she just makes me really happy.”

Mishkin isn’t alone in her feelings toward having a pet. In a study released this week in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers reported 90 percent of respondents said their pet helped them cope emotionally with coronavirus lockdowns. This result was based on a survey of 6,000 pet-owning participants living in the United Kingdom who took part in the study between March 23 to June 1, 2020.

Elena Ratschen is a senior lecturer at the University of York and the paper’s first author. She tells me that for the pet owners sampled here, “having a pet appeared to have a ‘buffering’ function in terms of detrimental effects of the lockdown on mental health and feelings of loneliness.” She believes that the connection between animals and people is something that is very special and is not yet that well-understood.

But she was also unsurprised by the link her team found between human-animal bonds and mental health, and that between animal ownership and abated feelings of loneliness. What was surprising was that animal species did not seem to be associated with the emotional closeness reported by pet owners. People felt, on average, as emotionally close to a dog as they would a guinea pig or lizard.

Mishkin's dog, Lady.Naomi Mishkin

Kayla Koterbay, an associate media director who moved to New York City from Oakland, California, in February, has found having her cats during lockdown to be a blessing.

“It’s so grounding to have the cats around,” she tells me. “They have no idea what’s going on; they have no idea we’re in the middle of a pandemic. They just live their entire lives in our tiny little apartment, which I have grown to hate because I have been forced to do the same.”

Toby and Scout, her cats, are emotionally stabilizing, Koterbay says. Having something to take care of has had a therapeutic effect, and when she feels down, anxious, or exhausted, the loving nature of her pets helps her through it.

“The cats keep things light,” Koterbay says. “It’s hard to get too far into that existential dread hole when you have a cat purring on your lap.”

Ratschen and her colleagues’ study also found that 96 percent of respondents said having their pet helped them keep fit and active. That may have something to do with the inherent duties that come with having a dog, something that Dan Robitzski, a reporter, found helpful with his senior chihuahua, Sugar. Robtizski says she was “the ideal companion” during the peak of New York City’s lockdown.

“When time seemed to stop and months blurred together, waking up and taking care of Sugar gave me structure, it gave me a routine. And, in doing so, reminded me to take care of myself,” Robtizski tells me.

Relationships are a two-way street, and pet-owner relationships are no exception. Daniel Mills, a study co-author and a professor of veterinary behavioral medicine at the University of Lincoln, notes that while a close emotional bond can be good for both owner and pet, it is important that pet owners also assess the emotional needs of their animals and determine how they can help.

That’s a process that writer Emily Gaudette has engaged with during the pandemic as she’s assessed the needs of her dog, Harley.

“I always felt emotionally close to Harley, from the first day we brought her home, but I have noticed that she’s way more dependent on us,” Gaudette tells me. She’s also more aware of Harley’s moods.

“There’s a whole spectrum of aspects of her personality that I’m only privy to because the pandemic has us home with her 24/7,” Gaudette explains.

One issue that has come up, she says, is “the problem of having to socialize a puppy when we’re not able to socialize ourselves!” During her formative months, dog parks were closed, and now Gaudette has noticed Harley is more protective of her toys than she was pre-pandemic and can get over excited by other dogs and humans. This is something that Mishkin has been thinking about as well. Because she, like Gaudette, already worked from home, she’s less concerned about potential separation anxiety and more worried about not being able to socialize Lady so she becomes used to new experiences.

Koterbay's cats, Toby and Scout.Kayla Koterbay

Mills explains that, for people who are worried about their pets experiencing separation anxiety, it’s wise to help pets practice being alone before a change in routine. This is especially true for new pets that have no pre-pandemic experience to compare their lives to. It’s also important that people carefully consider if they are ready to have a pet before they own one. While the study found pet owners’ mental health to be helped by having pets, the authors aren’t endorsing getting a pet as a salve.

“I hope people do reflect on the social contract they have with their pets and appreciate the support they have given them by ensuring they provide not just their love, but also what their pet really needs as times change,” Mills says.

Alyssa Ching, an education consultant in Sacramento, California, has been considering what her dog, Tiger Lily, needs as they start to share a life together. Tiger Lily is a Labrador-pit bull mix and was recently adopted from the Family Dog Rescue in San Francisco. Helping a rescue dog adjust to their new home, Ching says, is a process -- but she’s loved being able to focus on Tiger Lily’s growth during the pandemic.

“It is so rewarding to see her gain confidence every day, and she reminds me that if she can overcome her own trauma and still be just as loving, resilient, and curious as she is, then I can too,” Ching says.

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