How pets can improve our mental health in times of trauma

“The dog approaches Karin when she’s crying and comforts her by lying next to her and licking away her tears,” begins a 2015 case study into the meaning of companion animals. It continues: “The dog hears her, and wherever he is in the house, he comes to her. We can’t always comfort her. Sometimes, Karin has said, ‘It’s a good thing we have the dog, otherwise no one would be able to comfort me.”

Karin and her dog, like many who live with mental health issues and have companion animals,  share a “profound connection.” The study noted the immense “emotional work” pets provide their owners by not only sensing when they are needed, but serving as replacement family members or friends.

In fact, pets have proven to reduce loneliness, ease depression and anxiety, foster a sense of responsibility, help create relationship-building skills and encourage physical health. They also make their owners feel needed, and elicit a sense of calm and stability, particularly for those experiencing trauma.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been classified as a traumatic event, emotionally impacting not only those who have fallen ill, but frontline workers, those who have lost their jobs and those indirectly affected, for whom the crisis has become an everyday stressor.

To mitigate these factors, therapy is often the answer. But it doesn’t always have to involve talking.

In a 2014 Human-Animal Bonding Research Institute study, 74 per cent of doctors surveyed said they would prescribe a pet to improve overall health, having seen the way their patients have been impacted upon adopting a pet. The relationship goes both ways, too: according to a 2015 study from Japan’s Azabu University, both pets and owners experience an oxytocin spike when looking into each other’s eyes.

Naturally, then, and with more time to bond and train due to self-isolation measures, many have turned to animals as a source of comfort. Across Canada, animal rescue organizations have reported a surge in dog and cat adoptions, with some fielding more applications than they have animals. While many have closed their doors, those still open are managing virtually.

But prospective pet owners must also consider the animal’s health when making as big a decision as adopting. That means adjusting your thinking to what your life will be like when lockdown measures are lifted.

The Toronto Humane Society (THS) has closed the majority of its public services and sent home volunteers, with transfers on pause and fewer animals available each week. But it has moved the adoption process online with meet-and-greets conducted virtually. The hand-off at the shelter has become a careful process: everyone remains physically distanced when, for example, cats are placed in a carrier, after which the adoption agent will back up six feet and the prospective adopter steps forward and collect their new pet. Dogs have two leashes for a safe hand-off.

“It’s amazing to see the capacity we still have to save lives, even on a remote basis,” says Hannah Sotropa, THS public relations specialist. “We’ve been able to place almost all of our animals in foster homes without having to seek emergency homes. In recent weeks, we’ve been placing more animals than usual into foster homes, and our strong roster of around 1,000 foster parents has been on the ready.”

Toronto-based Redemption Paws Rescue also has more applications than animals on hand. At the start of the pandemic, the rescue had nearly 60 dogs, compared with a typical 120 to 180. The organization is trying to bring in as many at-risk dogs as possible, including rescuing many from being euthanized where shelters have shut down in the U.S., largely across Texas, with some in New York. 

“We’re bridging the gap,” says founder Nicole Simone. “We are a natural disaster and crisis rescue by default, and COVID-19 falls into our wheelhouse. At the same time, we’re seeing a dip in public support and donations we either can’t respond to the volume of requests for adoptions or people are upset that we’re keeping our doors metaphorically open. It’s a rock and a hard place.”

After all, animals need support and advocacy, too.

“I’m worried about the lack of socialization that dogs will get because everyone, including them, needs to stay six feet away,” says Simone. “While I support the government’s initiative to keep veterinary clinics emergency only, I hope they revise it to allow spay and neuter clinics. Not only to prevent unwanted litters from happening, but also because, behaviourally, spaying and neutering can be beneficial in socializing dogs, especially for those who are currently being isolated.”

Though it’s helpful to adopt or foster right now, it’s also important to consider whether you’re able to meet a pet’s needs when the pandemic is over. Breaking a bond formed during this period could impact you and your pet’s health. As such, Simone says many adopters have been crate training, intentionally leaving home for long walks without their dogs so they do not develop separation anxiety or social dependency when regular routines return.

Before adopting a pet, Sotropa says people should assess their budget, lifestyle, environment and longevity, and suggests considering a pet in the context of a post-pandemic routine.

Will you be able to afford food, supplies and veterinary costs? Will the animal fit into your everyday routine? Does your living situation have the space for your pet to live comfortably?

“The most essential thing to consider is the longevity of your decision,” says Sotropa. “In these trying times, as we are in search for connection and companionship, it might feel like the right decision to get a pet. But does it make sense 12 months from now? Or 12 years from now? Having involved conversations about the reality of pet ownership and how it might look after isolation will give useful insight to whether you’re ready for the commitment.”

While fostering a pet might seem like a great temporary choice, the key is to form a “profound connection” that outlasts the crisis. 

“Do not doubt Canadians’ commitment to dogs,” says Simone. “Toronto, in particular, is a sanctuary to dogs from all across the world. While the pandemic has hampered many rescue efforts, the intention and responsibility is still there in Torontonians’ hearts.”

@_sadafahsan

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