Psychological benefits of pet ownership during a pandemic

Psychological benefits of pet ownership during a pandemic
(WFTV.com News Staff)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Loneliness may be one of the hardest parts of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic since people have limited access to co-workers, friends, or family. How can you feel connected when absent from your support system? One way is to enjoy the companionship of pets to avoid feelings of isolation which can elevate stress and weaken immunity.

Research shows that pets, particularly cats and dogs, can reduce emotional pressure, anxiety and depression. A four-legged friend can benefit you in other ways. For instance, walking a dog encourages exercise, boosts cardiovascular health, stimulates muscles, gets you out into sunshine for a dose of vitamin D, gives you a chance to wave at the neighbors, all while encouraging owners to exercise which is another proven way to remove negative emotions.

Studies have shown pet owners gain physically as well as emotionally. One experiment by the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction found people who walked their dogs five days per week lost almost 15 pounds per year with no changes to their diet.

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Many reports have found owning a pet can provide significant health advantages. Consider the following benefits of pet ownership-

  • Lowers blood pressure and decreases respiration rate
  • Lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels
  • Higher levels of the neurotransmitter’s serotonin and dopamine which calm the brain (elevated during playtime with a dog or cat)
  • Heart attack survivors live longer if they own a pet than those without a pet
  • Improves the ability to cope with pain
  • Senior citizens who own pets make 30% fewer visits to their doctors
  • Pet care creates structure and routine to fill the day with purposeful activity
  • Have greater self-esteem, are more extraverted and less fearful
  • Feel less rejection and loneliness than non-pet owners
  • Even watching tropical fish can relax muscles and lower heart rate

Why do humans do better around pets? Companionship, routine, connection, touch, attention, affection and a host of other psychological needs are met while stroking, talking to, and caring for pets. Children, the aged, those with special needs all show marked improvement when interacting with pets.

Domesticated animals continually notice their humans, especially monitoring for non-verbal cues. While some of this behavior may be attributed to a dog seeking a treat or to go out for a walk, they are still tracking and noticing their owners emotional state.

This trait was highlighted in the television series “The Dog Whisperer” with Cesar Millan. During each show Cesar revealed how dogs understand many of the words we use, and especially the tone of our voices, body posture and emotional state. It was not magic to understand how dogs can look deep into their owner’s eyes and quickly determine what they are thinking or feeling, it was basic behavioral science.

This explains why some breeds can become strong and capable support animals. They notice and compensate for areas their owner may miss in their sensory environment. Trained Emotional Support Animals (ESA’s) can provide significant comfort for their owners who may feel overwhelmed by stress or trauma.

Should you go out and get a pet during a lock down? Experts say no.

It is important to research what your lifestyle was before sheltering in place to figure out if pet ownership fits your schedule and budget. Different personalities attach through different types of pets, so if thinking about adding a pet to your home, do your research first. Tropical fish are relaxing and do not have to be walked several times per day. Parrots can learn clever phrases but will not chew up your shoes and earning the purr of a cat is one of the simple joys in life.

Dogs are the most popular pet, (46.3 million American’s have a dog while 38.9 million households’ own cats according to the American Pet Products Association).

Someone you know owns a pet and can help you with the data you need to make a wise decision, so call them. Ask the hard questions. Gathering information on the type of pet you are considering before you move forward will give you understanding of all the responsibility involved and avoid disappointment from the pain of regret. Never purchase a pet for a child as a gift.

Talk to other members of your household and agree on the qualities you want in a pet and those you would prefer to avoid. In the case of dogs, there are dozens of breeds or mixed breeds, each offering a different blend of personality traits that may fit your home. The closer the fit, the greater the support.

Here is a list of questions to consider:

  • Do you want an active dog or one that does not need a lot of exercise?
  • Who will look after the dog?
  • How much time will the dog spend alone each day?
  • Are your children responsible enough to care for a dog?
  • Do you intend to hire a dog walker or take the animal to doggie daycare?
  • How big is your living space?
  • Does your landlord allow pets, and if so what size?
  • Do you have enough room for a large breed?
  • Do you live with young children or someone frail or disabled who would do better with a small or gentle breed?
  • How much shedding can you tolerate?
  • Do you want a puppy that needs training and housebreaking or a full-grown dog that is already trained?

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There is a lot of time, money and work involved in caring for an animal so make decisions based on facts not sentimental feelings. Pet ownership is a major responsibility, and in the case of some pets like Amazon Parrots, it can be a fifty-year commitment.

Pet food is a continual expense, as are veterinary checkups, licenses, grooming, toys, treats and boarding fees. Pets can be destructive or if feeling threatened can scratch or bite. For those on a fixed income, or currently unemployed, ongoing pet expenses can become a major financial burden. For others who will return to work after lockdowns are lifted, there may be no free time to give a pet the attention they need.

Pet ownership is beneficial for those who have the energy, time, and money to care for a new addition to their home. This is not a temporary cure for feelings of panic, or a quick fix to add comfort. If you have doubts – do not do it. Some people never envision they could become an ‘animal person’ which is fine. Trying to force a pet on someone during a pandemic – or any other time is a bad decision that will only create more stress.

Add to that the reality of feeling significant grief as you gradually lose a beloved companion because the animal gets weak or dies. Watch the film ‘Marley and Me’ with Jennifer Anniston and Owen Wilson to see what that traumatic experience is like on a family.

You may decide owning a leopard gecko to be the easier path.

If pet ownership sounds too overwhelming right now, consider other creative options to enjoy part-time pet benefits. Offer to walk your neighbors’ dog, or volunteer at a no-kill shelter.

Once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gives an ‘all-clear’, consider that many children’s hospitals, schools and airports offer trained therapy dogs, cats and bunnies you can pet and stroke to reduce your feelings of stress and anxiety.

Some rescue groups offer pet ‘rental’ programs or play dates to give the animal some human interaction for the day. You could foster a pet temporarily until they find a permanent home while enjoying the short-term benefits of being around an animal. (A note of caution- many people who foster fall in love quickly with their new furry friend, so walk carefully should you choose to explore this option).

Every caring relationship in your life can add value and reduce stress but few are as comforting as connecting to a four-legged best friend who prevents loneliness while bringing a better quality of life. A cat, dog, miniature pony, or turtle may be in your future. Just make sure it is forever and not just for a few months during the coronavirus crisis.

Dwight Bain is a Nationally Certified Counselor who writes on managing crisis to create positive change. He lives in Orlando with his wife, two kids and four cats. Follow him @DwightBain or visit www.DwightBain.com