Feeling Isolated or Stressed? A Pet Can Help

A furry friend doesn’t have to be a bona fide therapy animal to function like one in times of stress.

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Medically reviewed in June 2021

Updated on October 18, 2022

It’s well-established that four-legged companions can help make us healthier humans, both physically and mentally. Studies have cited better heart health in dog owners, along with higher self-esteem, less loneliness and depression, and lower levels of perceived stress and anxiety.

It’s not surprising that pet adoptions surged during the COVID pandemic—a time that left many people isolated and craving companionship. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) experienced an unprecedented response, with inquiries to its adoption center in New York City nearly doubling between March and October 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. Actual adoptions also spiked at shelters across the U.S., with some even emptying 100 percent of their cages.

“A big reason why people want pets is that they are so comforting,” says Steve Gruber, the director of communications at the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, a nonprofit that advocates for pet adoption and fostering. “Many people chose to adopt or foster for the unconditional love a pet provides. For those who are isolated, their pets are a lifeline, providing companionship and something other than themselves to care for.”

Today, roughly 70 percent of American homes have a pet. That’s more than 76 million dogs and more than 58 million cats alone.

Furry friends with benefits
The bond between humans and dogs—both social animals—dates back to prehistoric times, as suggested by the discovery of a 14,500-year-old grave in Germany holding the remains of two humans alongside a puppy. No one can say what their exact relationship was, but researchers speculate that dogs may have been domesticated that far back not just for work purposes but also for companionship and emotional connection.

Stacey Frenette, who works in IT and lives on her own in Boston’s North End neighborhood, can attest to the strong bond that can form between pets and their people, especially in times of crisis. In early April 2020, when her city was in lockdown, a short-haired dachshund puppy became the “best friend” she could ever have imagined. She’s been documenting his life on his own Instagram account, fittingly named @oscar_theteenieweenie.

Getting Oscar “was the best decision ever,” she says. Not only does he give her a reason to get up and get moving every day, but he has also opened her world to new people. These acquaintances include the store owners, servers at local restaurants and other dog parents she meets along her many walks with him.

“I had lived in the same place for so long but still knew so few of my neighbors,” Frenette adds. “That all changed with Oscar. I feel part of a community now.”

Despite the challenges and responsibilities of being a first-time dog mom, Oscar is good company and has made her happier. “There are so many things I love about Oscar,” says Frenette, noting that she describes him as a goofball full of personality, with a tail that never stops wagging and a bark that’s more like a Doberman’s than what you’d expect from a 13-pound dog on 3-inch legs.

Amera Labib and Ariel Brill, both self-employed, have jumped on the pet bandwagon, too. Living together in a small apartment in New York City for close to a year, they wondered if taking in a dog would be the wisest move. But when they set their eyes on Luna, a 4-year-old miniature schnauzer with big ears and a calm demeanor, they couldn’t say no.

“We noticed how quickly she minimized whatever stressors we were facing,” says Brill. “Luna has also brought a sense of newness and excitement to our days.

Pets are more than good company
Studies show that animals can ease loneliness, improve mood, and help people feel more socially supported. Researchers investigating the effects that pets have on human health also found that interacting with animals can increase levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin and help lower blood pressure.

Pets, particularly dogs, may even help us live longer, according to the American Heart Association. Most of the research has been on dogs and cats—America’s most common pets—but even fish, snakes and goats have been shown to have possible health benefits.

A June 2019 study published in AERA Open suggests that simply petting an animal can reduce levels of cortisol, the body’s primary “fight or flight” hormone released as a normal response to intensely stressful or dangerous situations. But a chronically elevated level, which may occur during prolonged periods of stress and anxiety, increases risk for heart disease and other health problems. High cortisol can also lower the immune response, increasing susceptibility to invading germs.

Think before you adopt
A September 2020 study published in PLOS ONE of nearly 6,000 people living in the UK during the COVID pandemic affirmed that human-animal interactions can provide a social support buffer to psychological distress and loneliness. But it also found that caring for a pet during this time was a stressor itself for many pet owners, who worried about having limited access to veterinary services and medication and whether they would be able to buy food and provide adequate outdoor activity time for their pets.

These specific stressors may have eased, but it’s wise to consider how bringing a new animal into your home will affect your finances and your daily routine. Before you get a pet, ask yourself these questions:

If you want a dog, which breed is best for you? Certain dogs are more suitable for kids and are easier to groom or train than others. Do you want a pup with high energy or one that will cozy up with you on Netflix night (or both)? Size may be an important factor, especially if you live in a small space without easy outdoor access. The Dog Breed Selector tool from the American Kennel Club can help you choose.

Do you have pet allergies? There’s no such thing as a truly hypoallergenic pet—and choosing one that’s touted as “low-allergen” or “doesn’t shed” doesn’t guarantee that you won’t have a reaction. That’s because the primary allergen is not the fur or hair, but rather certain proteins present in the pet’s dander, saliva, and urine.

Do you mind some mess and commotion? Dogs like to chew shoes, may have accidents indoors and could annoy close neighbors if they bark too much. Cats like to scratch furniture and knock things over and may stop using the litter box. Some behavioral training goes a long way, but there are no guarantees your pet will ever be perfect.

Can you afford it? Pet care and insurance cost money. In addition to food, you need to pay for vet visits (both routine and emergency), vaccinations, pet supplies, toys and, if needed, grooming services and pet walkers, sitters, and boarding. If finances are a concern, fostering may be a better—albeit temporary—option since the shelter or rescue group usually pays for all medical care and can often provide food and supplies.

Do you have the time and energy to invest in a pet? Besides needing obedience and house training, dogs must be socialized and exercised regularly—and they need companionship themselves as well as playtime with you.

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