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Companion Animals and Mental Health: A Reflection on Pandemic Pets

“Sometimes, the best medicine is unconditional love from your pet.” — Anonymous 

When COVID first began to spread across the globe, people around the globe began to experience varying hardships in terms of their health, relationships, and financial well-being. So far, this pandemic has caused a rollercoaster of emotions. However, many have taken comfort in new (or old) quarantine friends — those of the four-legged variety. 

The Pandemic Led to a Spike in Pet Ownership 

Animal rescues across the country and globe saw a significant spike in foster and adoption applications at the beginning of COVID. As reported by Matt Bershadker, the president and CEO of ASPCA, “typically, around 200 applications are submitted for fostering in the latter half of March. This year, we saw a nearly 70 percent increase in animals going to foster care compared to the previous year.”

Foster Dogs Inc, located in New York saw a more than 1000 percent increase in foster applications in March 2020 — and while this is heart-warming news, many in the animal welfare industry are bracing themselves for what may occur next. As rescue centers and shelters clear out, they are expected to fill again. It is anticipated that people who are sick or financially unstable will no longer be able to care for their pets post-COVID.

The Relationship Between Pets and Mental Health 

Although many invited a pet into their home simply because they had more time on their hands during the pandemic, for some pet owners, the benefits can be life-changing. Long before COVID, researchers have studied the link between mental well-being and pet companions, particularly among the elderly.

A survey conducted by the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute found that 74 percent of pet owners reported mental health improvements due to their pet and 54 percent reported physical health improvements. Additional studies have shown that pets can help owners reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease, reduce feelings of stress, and even help patients recover from trauma, including military veterans with PTSD.

Simply interacting with animals can lower levels of cortisol, better known as the stress hormone. One study even found that when participants were conducting a stressful task, they experienced less stress when they were with their pets, compared to being with a friend or even a spouse.  

At the end of the day, pets have evolved to become attuned to our behaviors and emotions. If you are able to responsibly take care of a pet, this may be something worth considering. Not only will they provide companionship, but owning a dog, for instance, can also encourage you to exercise more often and add much-needed structure to your day. 

Ready to look into pet ownership? Petfinder and the ASPCA are great places to start. 

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