Pets, Places, & Things, Points on Pets

A Special Hug of Thanks

By Ken Byrer

A Special Hug of Thanks

As we passed the one year anniversary of Covid-19 lockdowns and the disruptions to our lives, I took a moment to reflect on how pets have helped us get through these difficult times. They deserve an extra tasty treat and an extra-long hug for the services they have provided.

The virus took two main paths among the population. Many of us hunkered down as public health officials advised, while others simply lacked that option. People working in retail, construction, and similar areas couldn’t do their jobs from home while the first group adjusted to video meetings and finally getting that home office operational. All of us adapted to a new world of masks, limited occupancy in grocery stores, the practical end of going to movies or live music, and other fundamental disruptions to how we live our lives.

Through it all, our pets were there to help. In a changed world, they forced us to keep some parts of our routines intact as at least an echo of normalcy. We served their dinners on schedule as woofs and meows demanded. We took walks forcing us to leave the house on some kind of regular basis. We played fetch or with the flippy toy. The responsibility for the happiness and welfare of other living beings kept us both focused on a meaningful task and provided a welcome distraction from a constant flood of bad news.

No longer just wishful thinking, researchers suggest our pets can indeed sense our moods. National Geographic noted research suggests dogs use visual and auditory cues to determine when a human is angry or sad and change behavior based on their determination. Less obvious, cats too likely understand human emotion and react to what they sense, according to an article published by the BBC in 2015. It is worth noting that cats are notoriously more difficult to study, and that these experiments only advance the idea of animal empathy toward us rather than “prove” it.

Until we get further proof, we can only rely on thousands of years of anecdotal evidence provided by wagging tails and sympathetic snuggles. Unscientifically, I am absolutely convinced that our cat Loki understood the new stress in “his” house and went out of his way to be extra affectionate for our benefit. Friends tell of similar reactions from their pets. The AARP newsletter reported anecdotes from several people about how their pets – dogs, cats, birds, horses, pigs, and others – have helped their human guardians deal with the pressures of quarantine. According to a November 2020, post from the journal Nature:

“Previous studies indicated that owning a companion animal, such as a dog or a cat, has benefits for good mental health. Interactions with animals may help with depression and anxiety, particularly under stress-prone conditions. Human–animal interactions may even improve peer-to-peer social relationships, as well as enhance feelings of respect, trust, and empathy between people.”

No wonder then that the COVID-19 era saw a huge influx in pet adoptions. In January of this year, the Washington Post noted the huge demand for animals to adopt.  “We thought people would stop adopting because they would need to conserve their money,” said Cindy Sharpley, founder and director of Last Chance Animal Rescue, a nonprofit animal shelter in Waldorf. “But that hasn’t happened. It’s been just the opposite. They’re going like hot cakes. We can hardly keep them in stock. Time named the rescue animal 2020’s Pet of the Year.

It seems the need for love and companionship outweighed concern for conserving money during the COVID-19 crisis, but it is important that people don’t change their minds once things begin returning to normal conditions. Adopting a pet is a lifetime commitment, not checking out a library book to return when you’re done with it.

A new concern appears as we humans gain cautious optimism about the end of the COVID-19 era. As our companion beasts adapted to our changed behavior, so they must adapt to the next shift when we return to those destinations we have been denied for the last year. Chiefly that means the eight hours or more (plus commute) spent away from home will return, and it is quite possible your pet will be unhappy about it.

Most experts expect more problems with dogs when we return to the world-that-was. The American Kennel Club (AKC) offers guidance on addressing canine separation anxiety when their people go back to splitting their time between home and work. Essentially, guardians will need to revisit the training their dogs first received as newcomers to the house. AKC’s advice includes increasing the time your dogs spend by themselves while you are there; gradually increasing your time away from home; slowly restarting your normal routine several days before going back to work; providing extra exercise to help tire your pooch out; and furnishing extra toys – especially challenging, mentally stimulating ones – to provide distractions. Crate-trained dogs may need a refresher course.

ABC Everyday notes that cats are certainly not immune to separation anxiety, although they may express it differently, and that, in general, pets previously displaying separation anxiety are the ones most likely to have the condition return. You are the best judge of how concerned you should be for your pet, and how much support your pet will need. You will need the same patience you showed in the beginning, and to remember they do not understand why things are changing again.

The COVID-19 crisis reminds me of the love and support we all receive from our pets every day. Helping them readjust to our changing world is the least we can do to thank them for all they have done to get us through a difficult time that hopefully seems to be ending soon.

About the Author: K.R. Byrer lives in Alexandria with his redheaded wife, Eugenia, and their Flame Point Siamese, Loki.

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