In a recent Instagram post on The Dogist, Philadelphia-based surgeon Adrienne Shannon shared a few photos of her wearing scrubs and hugging her labrador retriever, Harper. Underneath the post, she illustrates how she will soon be redeployed to the emergency department to help fight on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic. She continues to share that many of her nights have been plagued by insomnia and the anxiety caused by the uncertainty of what’s to come.
Despite Dr. Shannon’s worries, she writes,
Everything is so much better when I get home to Harper. She knows that I may not be spending as much time at home right now, but that the times I am there are filled with cuddles and just pure love.
With so many of us taking the necessary precaution of being homebound; our furry, scaly and feathered companions have taken on the job of being coworkers and healers. It’s pointed out in a 2017 Time article that pet owners have lower blood pressure, heart rate and heart-disease risk, which also happen to be some of the effects anxiety has on the body. Purdue University has a dedicated institution for the study of interspecies relationships, the Center for the Human-Animal Bond. The center has addressed how pets can be of great service during this era of social distancing. The study referred to discusses the mental health benefits of service dogs to their handlers.
In addition to these animals helping people with their medical needs, the study suggests that people with these service animals report being in better emotional states. This statement is similar in sentiment to how pets in therapy are seen and utilized.
Using animals for therapy has medically-backed evidence. As the Mayo Clinic outlines on its website, “Pet therapy is a broad term that includes animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities. Animal-assisted therapy is a growing field that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders.”
There can be some confusion between the roles of animals, especially dogs, relative to their function. The American Kennel Club distinguishes on their website the difference between a therapy dog and a service dog, as well as highlighting a number of national therapy dog registering/certification organizations. On the AKC website, it states:
“Therapy dogs are not service dogs. Service dogs are dogs who are specially trained to perform specific tasks to help a person who has a disability. An example of a service dog is a dog who guides an owner who is blind, or a dog who assists someone who has a physical disability. It is unethical to attempt to pass off a therapy dog as a service dog for purposes such as flying on a plane or being admitted to a restaurant.”
Different, but still providing important services, animals can also be prescribed by a therapist as an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). These animals are brought into the lives of people enduring various difficulties and are known for their ability to sense their companion’s distress and discomfort.
As my job has transitioned to working from home due to the current state of events, I am joined by a new coworker. He’s 13 pounds, sleeps all day, and doesn’t contribute much to tasks at work, but what he does provide is stability and peace during a turbulent time. I’ve had my cat Joey for 13 years, and getting to spend ample time with him in this respect has made me appreciate the value he brings to my life. To be clear, he is not a therapy pet or an ESA, but I find value in being near him as a stress reliever. As I’m quarantined in my house alone for most of this time, his companionship keeps me in check even as I log in long hours at work. Joey gets me out of bed each morning, demanding to be fed, but in this same request is also teaching me that the needs of others have to come before my own at times. Just like the reason why we must all spend time indoors. At night, when it’s time for his dinner, he zaps me out of my work haze. My mood is automatically elevated each time he curls up by my side, periodically purring or doing anything remotely adorable (which is pretty much anything).
I’m fortunate to have Joey by my side, despite him having no clue what’s going on outside. He’s a rock and a constant, a wonderful reminder that life goes on. He lets me steal some happy little moments during these stressful days. Joey reminds me that we’re not being socially distant, we are being physically distant to keep others safe. He’s a captive audience when I feel like talking through my problems and fears. As an added bonus, there is also research that suggests purring has healing properties.
His footsteps make a dainty noise when he scurries down my hallway, and my house doesn’t feel so big and empty. I’m not alone because he’s there.
For my friend Erin and her dog Seamus (below), spending more time together has deepened their relationship. Erin explains, “Seamus is the reason I can have a little time safely outside and it has been really nice to be able to spend more time with him. I feel like I’m connecting with my pet on a new level and I get to see the benefits of how time and attention means so much to him as it does for me. It allows for a natural release of endorphins. It brings us both so much joy to go on walks outside and know that life is still around us.”
If you can house a pet, temporarily or forever, shelters are in great need for volunteers and prospective life companions. As the Humane Society puts it, “This uncertain and stressful time is also a wonderful opportunity to unify behind a common love of animals. COVID-19 does not discriminate; people from all backgrounds and communities will be impacted. A deep connection to animals transcends socio-economic, racial, ethnic and geographic boundaries and honoring that bond with compassion, not judgment, is a very simple yet impactful way to contribute positively in your community during this crisis.”
Remember, if you do decide to adopt a pet during this time or any other period of difficulty, they will be with you for many years to come, and they’re not just to help you get through these next few months. Make sure this is a commitment you can make for the longterm. I promise you it will be rewarding in every way imaginable. To adopt or foster an animal, please check with your local animal shelters.