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Pandemic Pets: The Human Need for Companionship during Isolation | Emma Warshauer

I’ve never been a pet person. I grew up with small, yappy dogs and always saw them as more of a nuisance than a need. They didn’t seem worth the mess, hassle, or fur that coated every piece of clothing in sight. So, you can imagine my irritation when the initial COVID-19 shut down forced me to move back into my childhood home with my six family members, a long-haired cat, Jack Russell terrier-Chihuahua mix, and a seventy-five-pound pit bull. The first month home was hell. Every morning I woke up with a cat lounging on my face, dog slobber on every pair of pants, and pet hair stuck to my tongue. Definitely not a pet person. 

The second month home, the initial coronavirus panic began to ease, and I finally felt like I could exhale. That reprieve was short-lived because, without a protective wall of adrenaline and fear, the realization of a prolonged pandemic hit me like a brick to the chest. At first, I was angry at everyone and everything. Why couldn’t people just stay home? Wear their masks? I thought the anger would be the worst of it, but as the quarantine stretched and the coronavirus infection numbers continued to increase, I fell into the next stage: hopelessness. If I really couldn’t control anything, then what was the point? How could I find purpose in a world where everything was so out of control? 

I could count on having to scoop the cat off my face and feed her, scrub the dog drool off my clothes, and carefully extract pet fur from my mouth. Gradually, the cat scooping turned into a cuddle, the drool scrubbing became a doggie bubble bath, and the fur picking transformed into brushing. The animals depended on me, but the dependence became mutual. Petting, walking, and playing with my pets gave me the emotional distraction I needed. They gave my brain a break from overthinking myself into a puddle. Isolation insanity made me a pet person. 

The coronavirus pandemic has caused many people to have feelings of depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation. In June of 2020, three months into the imposed COVID-19 quarantine, the Center for Disease Control reported that 40 percent of adults were struggling with mental health and feelings of loneliness. This decrease in mental health has been accompanied by an increase in pet adoptions. Why at such a stressful time do humans feel the need to seek out animal companionship? Pets help us heal. 

Robinson’s 2nd litter during quarantine / Credit: Victoria Robinson

The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) calls this The Pet Effect. The bond between a human and their pet is mutually beneficial, both physically and emotionally. HABRI has found that 74 percent of pet owners report feeling positive impacts on their mental health since becoming a pet owner. On the physical side of the spectrum, positive pet interactions have been shown to increase the production of oxytocin, the love hormone, in the brain. This increase in oxytocin can decrease feelings of anxiety, stress, depression, and feelings of loneliness. 

Since March of 2020, pet sales and adoptions have skyrocketed. The Connecticut Humane Society reported a dramatic influx of volunteers requesting to foster pets as well as an increase in pet adoptions since the shutdown began. Connecticut corgi breeder, Victoria Robinson, was so sure the shutdown would decrease her sales, she did not breed any new litters after the imposed quarantine. But immediately folks wanted some oxytocin on the brain. “In one week, I had over a hundred people contact me wanting puppies.” And the madness hasn’t stopped. Eight months in, Robinson has a waiting list of more than four hundred applicants.

Both Robinson and the Humane Society were surprised by the sudden increase in adoption interest. Over a Zoom interview, Susan Wollschlager, the Marketing and Communications Manager of The Connecticut Humane Society stated, “I understand that when people are home [they] have more time for an animal…you are there for the training.” 

Corgi puppy bred by Robinson / Credit: Victoria Robinson

The sudden increase in adoption interest has caused a pet shortage in many parts of America. Terryville resident, Danielle Finnegan, recently adopted a puppy and shared her struggles of obtaining her. Finnegan actively searched for her family’s pandemic savior for a little over two months. They checked different adoption and rescue websites weekly. Once the pets were posted, each would be adopted within the hour. Finnegan and her husband were lucky to have already been looking on the website when their grey-coated, blue-eyed, Weimaraner-Labrador mix was posted. “I would say within 20 minutes of them posting it, we happened to see [her] right away and we both agreed [she was the one]. Within the hour, they had taken her off their site,” Finnegan told me over the phone.

Finnegan explained that since she and her family are stuck at home, it’s the perfect time to train a new pup and that training provides a positive distraction to the harsh reality and loneliness of the pandemic. 

Frankie, the newest addition to the Finnegan Family / Credit: Danielle Finnegan

In times of isolation and loneliness, companion animals have been shown to decrease stress, and increase relaxation. Dr. Maria Iliopoulou, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, focused her MS and PhD on the human-animal bond. In an article published by the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University, Dr. Iliopoulou wrote, “As humans, we have the need to have a purpose and to feel needed. For people living alone and the elderly, pets help them feel needed and give them a reason for living.”

Eight months into our COVID chaos I’ve moved out of my family home, but find myself visiting almost every weekend — and let’s just say… it’s not to see my parents. Being a full-time student and having to work through a pandemic is stressful. But I can always count on going for a walk with the dogs or a cuddle with the cat to lower my blood pressure and give me a little dose of serotonin for the day. 

Becoming a pet person has also welcomed me into the pet-loving community. A year ago, I would have never approached the neighbor’s outdoor tabby cat. Now, I greet little Salami— a name I coined for him— every day. This daily ear rub introduced me to my neighbors and new friends. 

“Petting, walking, and playing with my pets gave me the emotional distraction I needed… Isolation insanity made me a pet person. 

Robinson shared a similar story, “I’ve met such wonderful people. I’m really good friends with them and it’s all because they bought a puppy from me. We’ve created some great friendships. We actually call our private [Facebook] page, our corgi cottage family.”

Dr. Iliopoulou could be the subject of one of her own studies. “I certainly enjoy the benefits of unconditional love from my pets every day. I believe that empathy and compassion are some of the gifts I received from my dogs, self-care and gratefulness from my cats, and the importance of freedom and companionship from my doves and canaries. However, the most important gift from these relationships is the noble purpose that animals give to my life. In a world where we are bombarded with messages of negativity, greed, and deceit, interacting with animals gives me faith that I can be the change I want to see in this world by healing, rescuing, and protecting voiceless, innocent, and open-hearted animals, one at a time.”

Maybe I will be a pet owner by the end of quarantine. Maybe. 

Corgie puppy bred by Robinson / Credit: Victoria Robinson

Emma Warshauer is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine

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Blue Muse Magazine is a general interest literary magazine published by the students of the English Department at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut. We publish poetry, fiction, and a gamut of creative nonfiction on anything and everything the blue muse inspires us to write.

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