Doggone Lessons to Get You Through a Pandemic
How your pet boosts your psychological and physical health.
Posted October 14, 2020
“A person can learn a lot from a dog,” John Grogan, author of Marley and Me, prophetically wrote years prior to the global pandemic of 2020.
He added, “Marley taught me about living each day with unbridled exuberance and joy, about seizing the moment and following your heart. He taught me to appreciate the simple things — a walk in the woods, a fresh snowfall, a nap in a shaft of winter sunlight….He also taught me about optimism in the face of adversity.”
A person can learn a lot from a dog and arguably a cat, a bird, and any other pet. Perhaps that’s why over the past nine months people throughout the country have clamored to adopt pets. Animal shelters have been swept clean, pet stores have been emptied, and puppies were pre-ordered. As early as mid-April, shelters from Chicago to California were reporting they had run out of dogs.
Mark Cushing, author of the book Pet Nation, made a startling observation when interviewed recently about a study conducted by the Mississippi State College of Veterinary Medicine. “America has a dog shortage,” he said. “America doesn’t have enough dogs to meet demand, and the situation is getting worse.”
Imagine: The global pandemic of 2020 has resulted in a dog shortage.
People of all ages are experiencing acute social isolation and loneliness as a result of state-mandated shelter-at-home orders, the need to work remotely, and limited social engagement as many restaurants remain closed or open with limited outdoor seating.
We have long known that social relationships have a huge influence on wellbeing. But here’s an important question as we grapple with the pandemic: Does the relationship need to be human?
As it turns out—and as many new pet owners are fast learning—social support and a sense of belonging can come from a friend that has four legs, fur, or feathers.
The benefits of being a pet owner far transcend the immediate needs of COVID. Rigorous social psychology research demonstrates that pet owners score more favorably on numerous mental and physical health measures. Compared to people who do not share their lives with a pet, pet owners have greater self-esteem, are less fearful and lonely, and are more likely to regularly work out and, thus, be physically fit. Pet owners also were found to be supportive parents and siblings.
Interestingly, people who are pet owners tend to rate their human relationships as close. Taken together, what this information confirms is that pet lovers are socially skillful people and more extroverted than average. They have big hearts and bestow good feelings on both animals and people.
Having a pet does not replace a human social network but it compensates during this unusual time. We know that cats, dogs, birds—and pets of all species, shapes, and sizes—bring wellness.
Under controlled lab conditions, one study revealed that pets inoculate people against the effects of loneliness and that they infuse substantial well-being benefits to their humans. Pet owners also have a higher life satisfaction score than individuals who chose to not share life with a pet.
Here’s the best part: There is a benefit to both the pet parent and the pet. Pet parents find that the bond between owner and pet is emotional as well as chemical. It turns out that oxytocin is released when we hang out with our four-legged friends.
In a surprising finding, we have also learned that our pets have a chemical response to our interactions with them. Saliva samples taken from dogs after 10 minutes of play with their owners show that oxytocin surges significantly in both cats and dogs.
As the world grapples with the tremendous uncertainty and mental health implications of this unfamiliar, novel disease and with an unprecedented public health crisis, we can be comforted to know that dog owners are less likely to have depression. Caring for a dog can help build greater resilience and coping skills to ward off depression, anxiety, and dangerous levels of stress. The American Heart Association has found a link between owning a pet—especially a dog—and reduced risk of hypertension and stroke—and a longer lifespan with fewer visits to the doctor over the years.
Advice columnist Ann Landers once wrote—long before we had research to prove her point—that puppies were nature’s remedy for numerous ailments in life. As new puppy mom and former board chair of Columbus Humane Laurie Stein Marsh put it, “With COVID, Josie reminds me to do what is natural to her and to all dogs, to not worry about the future but rather to live fully in each moment. With every wag of the tail, she encourages me to wake up happy and to expect the best.”
JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY 101, NO.6 (2011)