Aly Walansky•March 20, 2020•5 min read
It’s easy to feel sad when you’re cooped up at home. Isolation can take its toll on anyone emotionally. Humans are naturally social animals and, even if we don’t realize it, we actually get a lot of comfort from the everyday interactions we have with other people that we’re missing. And although we can FaceTime or text our friends, it’s perfectly normal to feel the lack of physical closeness — to feel lonely.
What’s important for pet owners to remember is while we can’t reach out and touch people, we can always cuddle our furry friends! Having your adorable pet with you during this rough and unprecedented time of social distancing has a great many psychological benefits, alleviating many mental health issues that stem from prolonged isolation.
“Snuggling with a pet can give you a release during these trying times. The focus of caring for a pet can give some a sense of purpose as well as calm,” says Stefanie Juliano, MS, LPCC, a professional clinical counselor.
Specifically, pets and therapy animals can help lessen stress, anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Interactions with animals can help people manage their long-term mental health conditions.
“A 2016 study explored the role of pets in the social networks of people managing a long-term mental health problem and found that pets provide a sense of security and routine that provided emotional and social support,” says Juliano. Here are all the ways pets help when we need them the most:
Anyone who’s ever owned a pet is aware of the positive effect they have on people, especially when it comes to stress and anxiety. And too much stress can weaken an immune system - which is exactly what we don’t need right now! “No matter if you are a cat person or a dog person, etc. animals can sense our emotions,” says psychiatrist Dr. Zlatin Ivanov. They can help us deal with our negative emotions. And at the same time share our happy moments.
Studies have determined that animal companionship reduces (self-reported) stress, fear, and anxiety. “Positive animal-human interaction (playing, cuddling, petting) has been related to increased levels of oxytocin in the brain (the hormone that makes us feel happy and trusting, which increases the bond we feel),” says Catherine Tito, MA, LPC, BC-TMH, founder and clinical director of SmartCounseling.com.
At a time when we can’t go and meet a friend for a drink, it’s important to have someone in our lives we can turn to for a hug or companionship. Pets offer just that. Studies have shown that pets are facilitators of getting to know people, friendship formation, and social support networks.
Having your pet during times of self-isolation and social distancing can reduce your stress and anxiety levels. “Hug or cuddle with your pet is all you have to do,” recommends Dr. Ivanov. Spend at least 30 minutes a day petting your cat or dog, playing with them, even talking to them.
Animals are great listeners. “They may not respond with words, but they can respond with emotion and care,” says Dr. Ivanov. That will take your mind off the stressful thoughts and the feelings of loneliness.
“Animal companions provide a sense of security and connection that can provide emotional and social support. And 80% of people with animal companions say their companion makes them feel less lonely,” says Tito. Now, that’s a statistic we can get behind!
As most people are encouraged to work from home currently, it can become difficult to maintain a routine. Some people have built structured daily schedules to keep themselves accountable, some people just wake up to do work, watch TV, and go back to sleep, and some people fall somewhere between that spectrum. But: “No matter where you fall on that spectrum, if you have a pet, you automatically have deeper purpose and responsibility in taking care of them,” says Erica Lubetkin of Tru Whole Care.
If you have a dog, for example, it gives you a definite reason to get out of the house and walk the dog. “This encourages getting up and moving around, and getting fresh air, which is so important in a time of social distancing,” said Lubetkin. We usually leave our homes throughout the days to run errands, commute to work, meet friends or family. But with all of those options taken away, an animal, such as a dog, can provide the motivation needed to go for a walk at least a few times a day.
“In addition, dogs can provide support and a sense of calm to our daily stressors (balancing our fight/flight/freeze response and activating the relax and restore response), as well provide support during or after traumatic events (and we’re all collectively going through a trauma right now with COVID-19),” says Lubetkin. Being around dogs decreases stress levels and increases energy and motivation.
You don’t need to leave the home to feel the structure pets provide. Even refreshing the water bowl or cleaning the litter box can offer a sense of purpose — because you’re living for something more than just yourself.
Animals can help us practice mindfulness (in a way that isn’t the typical guided meditation), by making us tap into the present, which absolutely aids in mitigating panic. “When you’re with an animal, let’s say a dog going on a walk, you are brought into the present moment. This allows us to focus more on surroundings and take in whatever is around us in a more mindful present way,” says Lubetkin. That means we spend less time spinning out wild theories and getting caught up in the what-ifs.
This calming influence is also true because pets offer empathy - they can sense emotions and differentiate between good and bad ones. “When they sense we’re down, sad, depressed, or stressed they tend to offer a paw, head on the lap, or acknowledgment that they’re there for us. In a time of isolation this can be extremely comforting!” says Lubetkin.
Plus, pets just make us happy, and isn’t more of that needed in the world right now?