A dramatic surge in applications to foster pets during the coronavirus pandemic may have led to an unexpected secondary result: improved mental health and sense of well-being for those fostering the animals.
“In a time today of isolation and people physically distancing themselves, many appear to be experiencing a sense of loneliness. Animals act as a degree of social support,” says Dr. Aubrey Fine, a licensed psychologist and professor emeritus at Cal Poly State University, who has been using animals therapeutically for over four decades and studies the human-animal bond.
“Sometimes we can sit next to an animal and solace and gain a tremendous amount of internal comfort,” he says.
Fine says animals reduce stress in the body in profound ways: blood pressure goes down, the stress hormone cortisol lowers and oxytocin, which Fine calls “the love hormone,” goes up.
“What ends up happening is that it rises when you feel that connection and in fact, what's really interesting, is that it rises the most when you connect looking at each other — when you gaze into an animal's eyes and an animal gazes into yours,” he says.
Matt Bershadker, president and CEO of the ASPCA, calls the surge of animals finding foster homes, “heartwarming.”
“We have seen a nearly 70 percent increase in animals going into foster care through our NYC and Los Angeles foster programs, compared to the same period in 2019,” he says.
Sarah Brasky, founder and executive director of Foster Dogs, a nonprofit focused on education about fostering and rescue in the New York City area, says applications are up 17 times the amount for this time last year with 4,000 applications since New York City enacted the shelter-in-place mandates.
“Many people assumed that fostering would be impossible, given their day-to-day life,” says Brasky. “But people are now staying home, and travel plans have been canceled, so fostering is more available to these folks than ever before.”
“I decided to foster because all of a sudden I had all of this newfound time” Joshua Waterman who adopted a dog, Nico, from the Dutchess County, New York SPCA. “So far it’s been incredible. It’s been a lot of fun for me and I think for him.”
Fine says these animals can serve as an emotional anchor. “When you're with your companion animal… you realize that that life has meaning, that you can persevere and that relationship sort of begins to help you anchor that sense of reality, that lets you know that things will be okay,” says Fine.
Studies show that pet ownership is associated with better mental health, less anxiety, and even fewer trips to the doctor.
And the Crisis Text Line, a non profit that provides free peer counseling via texts to those experiencing a mental health crisis, says that 40 percent of those reaching out in the first weeks of the pandemic say they turned to their pets for comfort. “Even more than mom — mom is 36 percent. Mom is usually on top, but right now people are really holding those pets close” says Ashley Womble, head of communications for the Crisis Text Line.
Fine says even talking to animals during the pandemic can help. “We perhaps know that they don't know all the words we're saying, but sometimes just being next to someone that lets you know that you're important allows you to feel that sense of security, that things are going to be okay,” he says.
And while there’s no evidence that animals directly understand when people are going through challenging times, studies show that they are sensitive to human emotions and body language — particularly dogs. “It's not surprising that if people come home distraught, on edge, or otherwise emotionally out of sorts, that dogs are going to pick up on these cues,” says Evan MacLean, Director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona in Tuscon. “As social animals, they are very much wired to tune into those around them.”
Fine says that fostering an animal might just help the foster family as much as it does the animal. “Sometimes knowing that you're helping the animal, you end up indirectly finding out that although you're thinking you're doing the most help, in many ways, the animal is helping us celebrate our lives in more valuable ways.”
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