The Power of Pets to Help Us Navigate the Pandemic

Hershey, the Border Collie.

By now most everyone is aware that the pandemic has been a source of extreme sustained toxic stress that has contributed to many mental health issues for adults and children: anxiety, depression, loss of motivation, desperation, frustration, and anger to name a few.

Those who have trauma histories can be more deeply impacted because the pandemic and its accompanying stress resonates against the stresses of previous traumas. For those who have not had had significant traumas in their lives, the pandemic can be a first experience of feeling powerless and having to deal with life-threatening issues, which means that virtually all of us now have significant trauma in our lives.

During these stressful times many have been able to lean on their pets for comfort and company. Some report how much they enjoy working from home, in part, because they get to hang out with their beloved pets.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs provides us with some interesting research about the emotional benefits of having a dog.

These include: 

  • Helping to bring out feelings of love.
  • Providing companionship.
  • Reducing stress and fun to be with.
  • Getting exercise and spending time outdoors.
  • Providing comfort

In addition, pets, like dogs, are wonderful listeners. Many people find themselves talking to their pets as if they are human and can understand their words, their underlying fears and other feelings. Of course, some pets are better at this than others. Dogs are famous for providing unconditional love. Some are also attached to cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, fish and reptiles, to name a few. If a person believes their pet is attached to them, they can still experience the benefits of having that pet.

Neuroscientists like Louis Cozolino in The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy provides us with some scientific information: “Most of us have experienced the positive thoughts and warm feelings associated with giving and receiving acts of kindness. [Some pet owners perceive that their pets are extending kindness and compassion to them and our pets certainly require us to act kindly towards them, providing food and attention along with frequent bathroom breaks.] Giving to others [and I suggest we can include our beloved pets] warms our hearts, … makes us feel better about ourselves. We are a social species. Taking care of others [and again I suggest we can include our beloved pets as family members we take care of] has evolved because it is essential for both individual and group survival.” 

He goes on to state, “As evidence of its importance, research has demonstrated that altruistic behaviors correlate with greater life satisfaction, longevity, and better physical health. Altruistic individuals report being happier, exhibit fewer mental disturbances, and have fewer negative thoughts. This means that altruistic people will be around longer to contribute to their tribe and that they will be rewarded for their contributions by having a more enjoyable life. For social animals like us, attachment, emotional attunement, and connection have also come to serve the role of healing psychological distress…” [And I suggest we can expand this to include beloved, responsive, caring pets.]

In terms of brain activity, Cozolino describes how altruism activates the release of the feel-good neurochemicals oxytocin and dopamine which supports bonding and attachment, decreases stress and increases neural plasticity. If we extend this to the realm of caring for pets as a kind of altruistic activity, we can conclude that there is a scientific explanation for the benefits we feel from loving our pets and being loved back by them.

Another scientific resource is the US Department of Health and Human Services Website NIH News in Health that states the following in its article The Power of Pets: Health Benefits of Human-Animal Interactions: “Interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) and lower blood pressure. Other studies have found that animals can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and boost your mood.”

Those of us who are fortunate enough to have loving pets in our lives don’t need all this scientific data to know what we are experiencing: unconditional love, feelings of being needed, having the diversion of caring for our pets. While we may have always enjoyed being pet owners, in this time when we are living through a pandemic, our pets have been an amazing source of comfort and connection and have provided a reduction in our stress.

If you are a pet owner, you might take a little time to appreciate how pet ownership is impacting you and the gratitude you feel because you experience day-to-day companionship and unconditional love. Certainly, being a pet owner is not for everyone and there is a lot of responsibility involved along with tasks that are not always fun: cleaning up messes, having to be careful about leaving food out, dealing with excess animal hair, etc.

However, for those of us who enjoy pet ownership, the enhanced gratitude we can feel about having them as part of our family while living through a pandemic allows us to appreciate this one small positive amidst so much negativity.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. If you are a pet owner, to what extent have you experienced feelings of being loved unconditionally, have decreased stress, and are enjoying a sense of responsibility towards the care of that pet? How might you be even more intentional about appreciating these wonderful benefits?
  2. What are some ways you can more intentionally embrace and enhance some of these feelings? Taking pictures and videos of them? Posting on Facebook or other social media?
  3. How can you maintain your appreciation for the many ways your beloved pet is helping you get through this pandemic?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute