As we struggle to cope with entering the New Year with optimism that we’re in the last stretch of this pandemic, we search for ways to feel connected. The idea of social distancing, a fear of person-to-person contact, and “staying in” can prey on our sense of loneliness, boredom, and purpose. I have asked many of my patients: children, teens, and adults, how they are faring. I often hear, “at least I have my (cat/dog/hamster/reptile), and that seems to help.
A recent study from the University of York and the University of Lincoln “found that having a pet was linked to maintaining better mental health and reducing loneliness.” The type of pet did not seem to matter, but the bonds between pets and their owners improved overall well-being and reduced anxiety. An unusual influx of individuals and families adopted pets during 2020 as the time home proved to be ideal for introducing a new pet into the family. While social media and video calling were essential for connections, the study reported that our positive interactions with our pets reduced depressed mood, anxiety, and social isolation.
Pets can help maintain our daily routines, be a source of entertainment, emotional nurturance, and can “listen” to us when no one is around. Pets provide nonjudgmental emotional support, especially when we are in stressful situations. Talking to your pet can offer many emotional benefits, such as joy, goodwill, nurturing, and happiness. Having a pet present when faced with isolation or social conflict with peers, family members, or just commenting on the news helps make us feel like we are not alone.
Petting, playing, and cuddling with your pet, if possible, has also been correlated with physical health benefits such as lowered heart rate, decreased cholesterol levels, and an increase in routine exercise. Caring for a pet can help maintain healthy responsibilities if alone, and watching others in your family interact with a pet can be a source of amusement, humor, and contentment.
Dr. Ratschen from the University of York added, “While our study showed that having a pet may mitigate some of the detrimental psychological effects of the Covid-19 lockdown, it is important to understand that this finding is unlikely to be of clinical significance and does not warrant any suggestion that people should acquire pets to protect their mental health during the pandemic.”
Sentiments like, “he’s the only one that understands me,” or “if it wasn’t for (so and so) I don’t know what I would do,” has come out many times from patients that were glad to have their pets as emotional buffers in these difficult times. In fact, I am one of those people who adopted a pet this past year, and I know his care and companionship has brought me through many a dark moment. We tend to “lose time” and purpose throughout this pandemic, and the act of taking the pup out on a walk to break up the doldrums has been extremely therapeutic.
Dr. Stu Leeds has used pet therapy dogs to assist patients with various issues and clinical problems. He has an extensive background in utilizing pets as a powerful treatment tool to help with anxiety, depression, behavioral defiance, phobia, and attachment disorders. He is hopeful that his current pet will be trained in Pet Therapy when this pandemic subsides.