Rawlins – During the past year, new pet owners have come to realize something long-time owners have known for years, their adopted loved ones help them cope with loneliness and isolation.

Because of COVID-19, the pet industry has experienced a major sea change in the number of people seeking to adopt a pet. Retail stores, shelters and breeding facilities have reported a significant rise in the number of adoptions.

Shelter Animals Count, which runs a database that tracks shelter and rescue activity, analyzed pet adoptions during the pandemic. The group tracks approximately 500 rescue organizations across the United States. It recorded 26,000 more pet adoptions in 2020 than in 2019 — a rise of about 15%.

Among those surveyed “4 Paws 4 Life” in Colorado nearly doubled the number of animals adopted during the first eight months of 2020, compared with a year earlier.

Officials from Shelter Animals Count say that many people who adopted pets reported they needed “an emotional support animal” to survive the pandemic.

The rise in pet adoptions has become so extreme, the Washington Post and other news outlets have reported, that across the country there are shortages of animals to take home. Some shelters and rescue groups, the Post reported, are experiencing more than double the typical number of requests to adopt animals since the pandemic hit the United States.

It’s not just our canine friends that are in high demand.

At “Homeward Bound Cat Adoptions” in Nevada, nearly 500 cats were adopted in the first eight months of 2020, compared to 200 during the same time one year before.

For mental health experts, this increase comes as no great surprise.

Patrick Gonzales, chief financial officer for High County Behavioral Health in Rawlins said pets can bring a level of physiological comfort that human family members and friends can’t provide.

“I think most people who have pets and are emotionally attached to them – and unlike people – they offer unconditional love and support,” Gonzales added. “During the pandemic, especially over the past year, more and more people are yearning for the attention a pet can bring.”

For more content read “The Power of Unconditional Love.”

“Kids and dogs are a good judge of people,” Gonzales said. “I think that’s one of the benefits of having a pet, they are not judgmental, unlike many humans. They just want to be loved and will return that love regardless. They will always be there for you, to support you and love you … without judgment or skepticism. Humans often build emotional barriers and pets don’t. They tend to break barriers down.”

Several recent studies support the belief that “pandemic pets,” as they are now being called by mental health experts, provide stable support and therapeutic benefits especially during stressful times, but the knowledge of a pet’s calming influence is well established.

The first research on pets and mental health was published 30 years ago.

Psychologist Alan Beck of Purdue University and psychiatrist Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania conducted the first study that measured what happens to the body when a person has bonded with an animal.

The study suggested that signs of stress were reduced by having an animal in the home. Blood pressure decreased, heart rate slowed, breathing became more regular and muscle tension relaxed.

The researchers discovered there was direct physical evidence of the benefits in owning a pet.

Although the first research focused on the interaction between humans and dogs it has since expanded to include nearly every animal whether a bird, hamster, goldfish, snake or our furry feline friends.

According to a 2015 Harris poll, 95% of pet owners think of their animal as a cherished member of the family.

“The bond between humans and their pets is very powerful,” Gonzales said.

The bond is so strong, Gonzales added, animal-assisted therapy programs have become a common part of mental and physical health treatment.

Regardless of the statistical data, ask any animal lover about their pet and they can spend hours recalling the fun and foibles each day brings from the adopted member of the family.

“I just love Emmie,” said 8-year-old Jessica Tandent of Henderson, Nev., when talking about her new cat. “We just got her a little while ago and she’s my best friend. She lays on me every night and just looks at me. She kisses my face and always wants her belly rubbed. Emmie is so funny.”

Jessica’s mother Kate said the past year has been especially hard on her daughter because of COVID-19 isolation and not being able to see her friends at school.

“She started getting really stressed out being at home so much,” Kate Tandent said. “My husband and I knew we had to do something.”

That something was Emmie, a 7-year-old, black and white “chubby fur ball” of a cat with a “mellow” disposition and an “adventurous spirit,” Tandent said.

Research has concluded that pets may protect children from anxiety.

According to a 2015 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which looked at more than 640 children with a dog at home that measured physical activity, body mass index (BMI) – the measurement of body fat based on height and weight – and anxiety researchers found that all of the children shared similar body BMI characteristics and physical activity levels whether they had a pet dog or not, but anxiety levels were worlds apart.

Slightly more than 20% of the children who did not have a pet dog tested positive for anxiety with 12% that had a four-legged companion at home testing positive.

The researchers concluded that there was a “clear and a beneficial effect” of pet ownership on childhood stress and anxiety. The research also indicated that children who grow up with pets may have a better chance of becoming happier and healthier teenagers.

Jessica’s mother added she was also becoming withdrawn, seeming to lose the zest of life most children shared prior to the psychological challenges of COVID-19.

“Emmie has really brought her out of her shell,” Kate Tandent said. “We’ve never had a pet before and it’s been amazing to see the difference in my daughter’s life now from what it was six months ago. Even her favorite things to do didn’t create much excitement. Now, it’s always ‘let’s go see what Emmie is doing.’”

The answer to what she is doing was enviable. Emmie was often found sleeping under the quilt on Jessica’s bed, but soon aroused the two played together for countless hours, Tandent added.

According to California-based Newport Academy – which offers evidence-based healing programs for adolescents and families struggling with mental health issues, eating disorders and substance abuse – people feel more needed and wanted when they have a pet.

The act of caretaker has mental health benefits, the academy noted in research. Experts in the field say it gives people struggling with mental health issues a sense of purpose and meaning.

“Having a pet keeps you somewhat grounded,” Gonzales said. “Pets don’t want anything from you other than a pat on the head or being able to come up and rub against you. They are just content in your care.”

It’s not just the young who benefit from pet ownership.

In a 2016 study involving pets, mental health and the elderly, a group of people 65 years and older were given five crickets in a cage to care for with researchers monitoring their mood during an eight-week period.

During that time the participants became less depressed than those in a control group who were without the responsibility of caring for an orchestra of crickets. Researchers concluded that caring for any living creature – even a cricket – reduced depression and loneliness.

More recently, psychologists at Miami University and Saint Louis University conducted three experiments on the benefits of pet ownership and published the results with the American Psychological Association.

In the first study, more than 215 people answered questions about their well-being, personality type and attachment style. Pet owners were reported to be happier, healthier and better adjusted than non-owners.

A second experiment involved 56 dog owners and their feelings about the pets. A majority of respondents said that their dogs increased feelings of belonging, self-esteem and gave meaning to life.

The third study involved nearly 100 undergraduate college students with an average age of 19. Researchers found that pets helped them feel better mentally and adjust quickly after experiencing rejection.

The difference between humans and animals, mental health experts say, is that pets live in the moment. They don’t worry about what happened yesterday and aren’t worried about what might happen tomorrow. This is a life skill that parents are often unable to provide.

This research indicated that pets can help people become more mindful.

Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the present moment. Pets can help not only teens but someone of any age who wants to enjoy and appreciate life as it comes and not to dwell on the past or stress about the future along with learning how to deal with day-to-day social isolation.

(Sources: Survey reports from Mars Petcare, Washington State University and OnePoll, on behalf of Zoetis Petcare)

(Sources: Survey reports from Mars Petcare, Washington State University and OnePoll, on behalf of Zoetis Petcare)

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