As the COVID-19 pandemic rolls on, a year’s worth of worry and social distancing is taking its toll on many of us — but a powerful tool to mitigate feelings of isolation and stress may be quite literally staring us in the face.
More than half of U.S. households have at least one pet, and while we don’t necessarily think of our furred or feathered companions as partners in our well-being, Dr. Janet Hoy-Gerlach said maybe we should.
“Given the increase in social isolation due to COVID-19, benefits of the human-animal bond may be more important now than at any other time in recent human history,” said Hoy-Gerlach, an associate professor of social work at The University of Toledo. “We need every tool, every resource that we can mobilize to get through this pandemic and get to the other side of it as well as possible. Companion animals can play a really key role in that.”
While pausing visits with friends and family can help to shield us from the virus, social distancing comes with its own dangers. In addition to the emotional effects of loneliness and depression, research has clearly shown that long-term isolation translates into poorer physical health outcomes.
Hoy-Gerlach, who has spent years studying the human-animal bond, said animal companionship can’t replace human contact, but there are clear physical, emotional, psychological and social benefits to be had from our pets.
“We already have these connections,” she said. “In many ways it’s understanding better how our animal companions can help us with pandemic-related stressors and being more intentional about incorporating our animals as partners in our self-care.”
That can be as simple as making a point to cuddle with your dog when you’re feeling anxious or stressed, or setting aside time to go for a walk. The key, she said, is viewing pets as allies in our efforts to promote our own well-being.
Hoy-Gerlach published a paper on that topic last year in the journal Society Register and is currently finalizing research aimed at exploring and delineating the benefits of emotional support animals for individuals at risk of social isolation.
In that study, funded by the Kenneth A. Scott Charitable Trust, researchers from the UToledo College of Health and Human Services followed a group of people who obtained shelter dogs or cats to serve as emotional support animals through the Hope and Recovery Pet Program. The program operates through a collaboration between the Toledo Humane Society, ProMedica and UToledo. Study participants were regularly tested for changes in a trio of biomarkers related to stress and bonding, and were surveyed about their depression, anxiety and loneliness at the beginning and end of the 12-month period.
Because of the important role pets can play in filling some of the social gaps individuals are experiencing with the pandemic, Hoy-Gerlach said it’s critical that communities have support systems in place to help ensure people can keep their pets.
“Another big piece of the COVID stress puzzle is the economic burden many people are experiencing,” she said. “We want to make sure communities are helping to connect people with things like pet food banks, temporary foster care and low-cost veterinary clinics.”
Temporary foster care aimed at reunifying people and their pets can be crucially important for a person hospitalized with COVID-19 who has limited social support and does not have someone to temporarily look after their pet.
“That pet may be the person’s main support in such cases, yet it is precisely in such cases that people are at most risk of losing their beloved pets,” Hoy-Gerlach said.
During the pandemic, Hoy-Gerlach collaborated with Katie Molina, a student in the UToledo social work graduate program, and Jessica Ricker, a social work student at Bowling Green State University, and Community Pet Care Clinic co-owner Aimee St. Arnaud to assemble a pet resource guide to help connect pet owners in need with services across northwest Ohio, such as temporary boarding of pets, pet food banks and accessible veterinary care options.