Pets deliver healing during the pandemic blues
More people have turned to pets for companionship during COVID-19, bolstering the health care benefits of “pet therapy.”
After her workplace closed due to the pandemic, Diane Pietro set up shop at home and threw herself into her job. Soon, however, she felt the loneliness and isolation many others have experienced working remotely for the first time.
That’s when McGee came to her rescue. As Pietro found herself feeling depressed at the end of a stressful day, her golden retriever mix refused to let her fall, she said. McGee lifted her mood and compelled her to get out of the house for walks, dog park visits, and agility training sessions.
“He wouldn’t stop until he persuaded me go out with him,” said Pietro, a mortgage processor in Minneapolis for Wells Fargo Home Lending. “I knew he looked forward so much to those times, and that kept me on track. Taking care of him made me take better care of myself, especially when things were stressful. He’d remind me that we’re a team and had to take care of each other.”
Pets have given their owners an unmistakable boost to their mental health during the COVID-19 crisis, researchers say. Statistics show pet adoption requests have skyrocketed this year, as more people seek pet companionship and reassurance amid the epidemic isolation. Historically, ASPCA figures show an equal number of dogs and cats are adopted each year. This year, however, dogs appear to be taking the lead.
Not surprisingly, medical authorities have increasingly noted the health care role of pets. In an updated 2019 report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detailed the mental and physical benefits, including decreased blood pressure, lowered cholesterol levels, less loneliness, more exercise, and healthier social connections.
“It’s clearly recognized by science now,” said Nicki Bartram, a mental health counselor and consultant for Wells Fargo Employee Assistance Consulting. “We know pets help in battling loneliness and depression because of the companionship they give us. They help reduce our stress, give us a sense of purpose to our personal interactions, and support our physical health by driving us to get outside and exercise.”
Stories from the heart
Beyond science, however, the most compelling evidence of a pet’s value comes from the hearts of owners. Bartram and her husband are fans of the strength and gentleness of large dogs. She tells stories of Charlie the St. Bernard, Ava the St. Bernard/Great Pyrenees mix, and the late Riley, her Bernese mountain dog and a long-time therapy canine.
“Whether it’s the pandemic, politics, or whatever is happening in the world, our dogs will see when you are getting stressed, come over to you, and just sit there and stare at you with those big warm eyes,” she said. “Then the act of reaching out to them, touching and petting them takes your attention away from the stress. It becomes what we in therapy call a ‘grounding tool’ that restores your perspective.”
For Ruth Zenner, small dogs have won her heart with their affection and intelligence. She trains toy Manchester terriers as therapy dogs for local hospitals. Zenner recalled taking her dog, Tempest, to visit a patient who was seriously ill. Tempest sensed the man’s distress, hopped onto his bed, and curled up next to him. Soon, the patient was sound asleep.
“His sister who was there told me he had not slept in days,” said Zenner, a project manager for Wells Fargo Technology in Tempe, Arizona. “After a little while, Tempest jumped down and got back on the cart I’d brought her in, like she knew her work there was done. When you go into the hospital like that with your dog, you see people at their best and their worst times in life. But often you walk away feeling like you made someone’s day and your own day too.”
A journey to joy
Cynthia Powell said her life has turned around since she adopted Ori, her Labrador retriever mix, which brought her joy again after the loss of a beloved pet. She adopted Ori with help from her friend Debra Phelps, a project manager for Wells Fargo Home Lending, who operates the Destination Home Puppy Rescue nonprofit.
Affectionate, energetic, and fun, Ori has been a godsend especially in the pandemic, said Powell, manager of a business systems team for Wells Fargo Auto.
“I had been traveling a lot for work, not exercising enough, was out of my normal eating routine, and knew that was affecting my health,” she said. “When the pandemic hit, there was no more travel, so that slowed me down. Working from home, I got back into a routine of walking Ori several times a day. That reconnected me with her and really helped me improve my health.”