The Healing Power of Pets
By Melissa Berman
March 21, 2021
“What can I say? I’m a COVID-19 cliché.”
My friend Sherri and I were walking GoGo, my 7.5-pound Chihuahua/Papillon foster doggy, down a forested road in Montauk. We were reviewing the turn of events that left Sherri and her boyfriend Rich, with a pending adoption application for this ‘in demand pocket-sized bundle of love’. Sherri went from ‘someday, maybe we’ll get a dog’ to ‘I want her, I must have her’, after babysitting GoGo for just one day. Like many people during the pandemic, she realized that the benefits and joys of having a four-legged family member far outweighed any hesitancy.
It’s no secret that having a pet can make you feel happy. Multiple studies over the years also show that pet ownership is good for your health. Our relationships with pets can reduce cardiovascular risk, fight cancer and pain, improve blood pressure and cholesterol, lessen depression and anxiety, and help Autistic kids and seniors with Alzheimer’s. We all know about the life-changing work of service animals for the blind and handicapped. I even have a friend with a diabetic child, and a service dog that can sense when her sugar levels are in the danger zone and alert them.
The stories of unconditional love and loyalty from our dogs and cats play out in books and movies. Remember Old Yeller and Lassie, or Marley and Me? A browse through Instagram and TikTok can provide hours of watching dogs sing or steal ice-cream cones, and cute kitties giving high fives or climbing up their owners’ back. Our four-legged friends give us so much. They make us smile and bring us together to socialize. They cuddle up and keep us company and get us out and moving. They become part of our family, or for many living alone, they are the only family present on a daily basis. It could even be said that they actually give us life, based on a study by the American Heart Association, which concluded that dog owners had a 24% risk reduction for death from any cause.
With all this warm and cuddly evidence, it comes as no surprise that there has been a dramatic increase in pet adoptions and purchases since the onset of the pandemic. During the first two months of lockdown, the number of people filing online applications to foster pets in New York City and Los Angeles increased 400%, compared to 2019, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Purchases of puppies are up too, with hundreds of potential buyers vying for each new puppy. For those who already had a pet in place, bonds are even stronger. Angie Parker, Beauty Director of this magazine, says her Yorkie Nori “became my personal therapist, the best listener!!” during the long days of lockdown.
As someone who has always had a pet, up until my dog died 2 years ago, the absence of a dog during these challenging times was palpable. I decided to foster as a first step back into petdom. Social distancing pushed a lot of shelters to a foster model, so it didn’t take me long to find a local organization happy to have an experienced dog owner with time and love to devote, while a ‘furever’ home was found. I saw GoGo on a local dog rescue Instagram and offered to foster her. Shortly thereafter, I had a minor accident and injury, so Sherri agreed to watch GoGo for a day or two. She recalls the moment of truth, “I was putting on her jacket to take her back to you, and she gave me that look, and it hit me, I started crying.” GoGo had found her mom. And Sherri had found a balm for her COVID-19-weary soul. “Before I got her, I’d go days without leaving the house. Now I get away from my screen and outside multiple times a day.”
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, after three months of lockdown, another friend, Jose, decided to get himself a cat. “If I am going to be alone, I need another heartbeat in this house.” The process was actually a bit daunting. After applying with a few rescue organizations to no avail, he got in his car one day and headed to the nearest animal control center. “I waited outside for an hour baking in the sun. Finally, they asked me for $5 for the cardboard box and said that the cat was free. So began my new life with my larger-than-life kitten. He is my little rockstar. He has saved me.”
Another cat lover I know decided to take in one of the feral cats she had been feeding. The kitty was more than happy to move into the posh life. Stuck working from home all day, Vanessa taught her kitty to fetch, yes - like a dog, and they take play breaks during the long work from home days. Then, the sister of her cat showed up with a kitten. “This can’t be happening, I am turning into a cat lady!” Vanessa joked, after bringing the two newbies home from the vet where she had them spayed and vaccinated. She eventually found homes for the mother and kitten, but says the experience of all the animals in her home was a welcome distraction from COVID-19 news and isolation. “They made me smile all day. Filling my heart where I least expected it.”
The origins of our domestic relationship with animals, specifically dogs, is the subject of multiple theories by scientists across the globe. One consensus is that some 15,000 to 40,000 years ago, gray wolves and dogs diverged from an extinct wolf species. One theory about how those dogs became cuddly pets, suggests a gene that made some wolves more friendly than others, which helped create an initial bond with humans. Then, those friendlier animals self-bred into the cuter, more approachable pets that we know and love today. We also know that approximately 8,000 years ago, the bones of cats and dogs were found buried with their owners. And a few hundred years back, European royalty is noted to have worn garments with special pockets for their little dog friends. That same Royalty, traded dogs as gifts, and commissioned portraits with their pets. Cut back to those Instagram and Tik-Tok pet influencers chronicling the everyday and extraordinary antics of modern-day pets, and we can see how pet love has endured and evolved.
Here at Kat Burki, the team is most definitely a pet-loving group. Kat herself has two dogs, Gilles and Kodi. They give her a daily dose of laughter, which she recommends to all as a way to stay young at heart – literally and figuratively.
Pets are a source of companionship, comfort, entertainment, and love for anyone who has ever had one. They teach us how to live in the moment, remind us to play, calm our nervous systems, demonstrate true loyalty, and occasionally dig a hole in the yard or pull the curtains down. They reflect a part of us that loves unconditionally, and show us that bonds can cross species, and indeed we are all connected. The healing power of pets is a true (and adorable) force of nature.