Will my perfect pandemic pet boost my mental health? It’s complicated.

With the vast uncertainty and loneliness experienced by so many through this pandemic, it makes sense that younger individuals tend to socialize more and are not too content with the handling of Omicron. Erin Horrocks-Pope/Toronto Observer

*Content warning: This story contains content about suicide and suicidal ideation.

The parquet floor of my apartment is cool on my belly as I lay near Freya, the beautiful, sleek, orange tabby cat I recently brought home from a shelter. She walks around me and on me, purring deeply and eventually nuzzling her wet nose into my face until I fulfill the back-scratches she demands of me.

Freya and I bonded instantly when we met a few weeks ago at a shelter in Vaughan, Ont. She was a recent rescue; frail, timid, and as much in need of a companion as I was. After a few weeks of rebuilding her strength, getting spayed, and having her diet switched from canned spaghetti to something more feline-appropriate, she was ready to come home with me.

Within hours of being released from the carrier into our place, she was exploring and quickly becoming comfortable. Less than a week in, she’s playing, purring and distracting me from my work because I am so completely enamoured with her.

This cat came into my life at just the right time.

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My pandemic pet adoption story is simple: I was in desperate need of a companion. Like so many others, I’ve experienced major life changes throughout the past 18 months. Unemployment, financial distress, the death of my dear Nana, a devastating breakup and an even more devastating pregnancy loss, a brief stint of homelessness … I could go on, but I won’t.

Things were unbearable. My mental health took a beating I wasn’t sure I would recover from. I turned to self-medicating and soon found myself stuck in some deeply dark places online.

The week before I found a shelter to visit in search of a cat, I admitted to myself and my loved ones I didn’t want to be alive anymore. The fantasy of everlasting darkness had been infiltrating my daily thoughts from the overpacked box in the back of my mind where I’ve stored my emotional distress since childhood. 

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During that childhood, however, I was surrounded by cats. In my parents’ home, we always had at least two feline friends at a time. When I moved out at 19, I chose to leave my boy, Twister, behind. It was hard not to take him with me, but he was so bonded to my parents and the other animals of the house that I knew it was the right choice. 

When I was living with roommates and then with my ex, it was never the right time to reincorporate pet ownership into my life. But, after getting my own place this year after my breakup, and then quickly becoming absorbed by loneliness and crippling depression, I figured now was a good a time as any to find a four-legged, furry love again.  

Pet adoptions surged during COVID-19 pandemic

I wasn’t alone in seeking out pandemic companionship. Eighteen per cent of Canadian households surveyed said they’d acquired a new pet since March 2020, according to data published by Narrative Research last November.

Factors like shifting to working from home, more unoccupied time due to lockdowns and travel bans through it all have created situations in which individuals and families believe this is the perfect time to bring a pet home.

With the uncertainty and loneliness experienced by so many through this pandemic, people are seeking meaningful bonds with animal companions, with hopes of enjoying meaningful effects: As little as ten minutes spent interacting with an animal can produce a significant reduction in cortisol, our body’s primary stress hormone, according to a 2019 study by Washington State University.

There has been an 18 per cent increase of Canadian households owning a pet since March 2020. / NARRATIVE RESEARCH

It’s the desire for this type of bond and unconditional love that could explain why the Toronto Humane Society received more than 11,000 adoption applications in the immediate months after their temporary COVID-19 closure.

According to Hannah Sotropa, the assistant manager of the THS communications department, many of those seeking to adopt said they were specifically seeking companionship.

“Many people during the pandemic experienced forms of loneliness like never before,” said Hannah Sotropa, the assistant manager of the THS communications department. “The human-animal bond provides many impactful benefits to both people and animals. Those prone to stress, or even those in a stressful situation, can be calmed down by a pet’s presence.” 

The most common factors that increase a person’s risk of suicide are having higher education, being a cigarette smoker, having mental-health problems, living alone, and being male, according to a 2018 paper featured in Epidemiology. At this point in my life, I’m hitting four of those five.

How pets affect our mental health

Many articles and studies have suggested pet ownership can improve mental health challenges like depression and anxiety, and perhaps lead to lower suicide rates. But, in a 2019 Psychology Today review of 30 studies on the impact of pets and our mental health, author Hal Herzorg found most research does not actually support the claim that pet ownership can be directly linked to lower rates of depression.

According to Herzorg’s research, only five of the 30 studies found that pet owners suffered less from depression than non-pet owners. Another five of the studies found higher likelihood of depression in pet owners compared to non-pet owners. And 18 of the studies found that there were no differences in depression rates.

There may be exceptions for some demographics like homeless youth, individuals with diseases, and people who have lost a partner, he wrote.

“There are lots of reasons to get a pet, but a treatment for depression is not one of them,” Herzorg wrote.

So, where do we go from here? We know that many people seek animal companions to aid in their mental health, I know that it was a contributor to my own search for Freya.

“I’m still depressed, and Freya can’t cure that. But, I’m finding more joy in her company, whereas prior to sharing my home with her, I was just going through the motions.”

In a January 2021 article published in The Conversation, it was found that people who owned pets prior to the pandemic had poorer mental health but showed less mental health deterioration and feelings of loneliness over lockdowns.

Results of a study done by co-authors Dr. Elena Ratschen and Dr. Emily Shoesmith, shows that animal companionship and connectedness have been beneficial for owners over the pandemic.

Our animal’s intuitive responses to our emotions might indicate that our pets have a “protective” effect for us as owners, the authors said. But, the study also showed that pet ownership also caused concern over veterinary care, affordability of pet ownership and risk of owner illness.

So, even with all the proven benefits of pet ownership, there is no way of determining if becoming a pet-owner will drastically improve an individual’s mental health.

I’m still depressed, and Freya can’t cure that. But, I’m finding more joy in her company, whereas prior to sharing my home with her, I was just going through the motions. Fake smiles and a peppy persona can only get us so far; we need real happiness and real connection in our lives. And, real connection requires real commitment.

Pet adoption is a big responsibility

There have been concerns over an increase surrendering, rehoming, or abandonment of pets over the course of this pandemic. Instances are arising with both new adoptees and pre-COVID-19 pet-owners finding themselves no longer in a position to care for their animals after job losses or other life changes stemming from the pandemic.

Donna Cox founded North Toronto Cat Rescue in 1988, and it’s where I met Freya. Cox has had many concerns about the rising number of pandemic pets being adopted to people who don’t fully understand how much time, effort and responsibility it takes to keep an animal safe, happy, and healthy.

“We always talk to people to make certain that they understand the commitment,” Cox said.

If potential adoptees exhibit any hesitation during the process, Cox recommends that they take some time to think about the commitment before … well, committing. 

“If someone is considering adopting a pet, for any reason, they need to be ready,” Cox said.

“Having an animal is a commitment that can last up to 20 years,” said Cox. “They’re expensive, they need a lot of care and time, and they’re more than an accessory. They get in the way, they get sick, they get old, but it’s worth it if you’re ready.”

If you really are ready for for all the parts, good and bad, of pet ownership, our animals can become precious beacons of hope in our lives.

Since bringing Freya home, I’ve felt that light. I’ve really felt it. Her presence alone has slowly begun chipping away at the darkness that’s hovered over me in recent months. Her relaxed purrs in the mornings and her overwhelming ‘zoomies’ at night have given me a reason to love being at home.

Today, I even caught myself smiling.

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Posted: Oct 27 2021 7:00 pm
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