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How Pets Are Helping Us Cope With The Pandemic

(Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images)
(Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images)

Many of us turned to pets for comfort during the pandemic.

People rushed to adopt new animals and doted on those they already had. So, what is it about us that craves that animal companionship? Maybe we need those animals to help us get through:

“I can 100% guarantee you that I would not be here right now without this cat,” radiation oncologist Fumiko Chino, who relied on her pet when her husband died in 2007, says. “I would not be a physician and I may not be alive.”

Today, On Point: Pandemic Pets.

Guests

Elizabeth Berliner, associate clinical professor at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Alexandra Horowitz, senior research fellow and adjunct associate professor at Barnard College. Author of “Our Dogs, Ourselves.” (@DogUmwelt)

Kim Roche, certified dog behavior consultant in Austin, TX.

Also Featured

Fumiko Chino, radiation oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. (@fumikochino)

Interview Highlights

On the pet adoption boom during the pandemic

Elizabeth Berliner: “As the pandemic began and stay at home orders were put into place, there was a lot of discussion about what do we do as a sheltering industry, what happens to the animals in our care? And so we pivoted pretty quickly to turn to our communities and say, We need your help. And so the initial push was to get animals out of the physical structures, out of shelters and into foster homes and adoptive homes as quickly as possible. That was both to protect the animals and make sure they were provided for, but also to protect our staff as we figured out how to function during the pandemic.

“There was a lot of effort to figure out how do we do this in a way that does not compromise the humane care that we are so committed to in our animal shelters. And so there was definitely an initial push where animals were — to use a dramatic term — evacuated into the community. Because as people were staying home, they were in a better position to provide care in their homes than we were in our normal facilities.”

What did that look like on the ground?

Elizabeth Berliner: “A lot of organizations were already utilizing foster care to kind of maintain capacity in their organizations. But this really advanced the needle on that sort of practice. And so the drive was to enroll a lot more of our community. … So to find new foster owners. And there was also a push to get people in the community who found stray animals, particularly litters and moms, to say, Hey, can you help us as a finder of this animal? Can you foster this animal until we can find another placement? So we really enrolled our communities in our work. And that is something that we know is successful practice at all times, but was absolutely essential to what shelters were doing at the start of the pandemic.”

How did you check in on the animals?

Elizabeth Berliner: “Technology’s come a long way in a lot of industries. And we moved pretty quickly to figure out how to use technology to our advantage. And I want to say first up, that there are certainly parts of our country where technology is not as advanced. And broadband is certainly something to discuss. But in a lot of cases, animal shelters were able to utilize the same sort of platforms we used in other settings to do kind of telehealth checks or video checks, set up sort of technological tools for our foster parents to check in with us. Veterinarians were using online platforms and Zoom to check in on animals.

“And I want to say we also really embrace the fact that practices like complicated interviews, home visits, a lot of the things that historically we’ve employed. Both for adoption practices and foster practices have demonstrated over the last couple of decades … they don’t really help us make better choices. And so we were already talking about reducing barriers to adoption and to foster care. And that conversation also really took off. We can trust people more than we think we can. And so as an industry, we also started to embrace really being more open minded about our placements.”

On why people turned to animals during the pandemic

Alexandra Horowitz: “At some level, the relationship with animals was taking the place of the interaction with which we were deprived of in the quarantine. Needing to sequester ourselves, staying at home. And there are a lot of aspects of that relationship with other people, which, of course, are not replaceable. But there are some important elements, for instance, the ability to be in contact with, to touch another living creature. The attention of another living creature on us. And at some level, our ability to give attention to them. Those types of things were, I think, what the dog or cat … [could] replace the absence of human relationships.”

On what led to the domesticated dogs we know today

Alexandra Horowitz: “We don’t know for sure how the relationship between people and dogs began. One, we do know that it’s been tens of thousands of years, maybe up to 40,000 years, that humans and dogs or some kind of proto-dog, a kind of wolf, lived together. One of the theories is that we actually at the time, those early humans took in wolves, proto-dogs as pets.

“Similar to the way we would keep them today, because of our interest in the affection, that relationship with another animal. Another possibility is that … some wolves sort of domesticated themselves, grew a little less fearful of humans and therefore were likelier to approach us, and we them. And it was probably sometime after that that dogs really developed, we started intentionally breeding dogs. That didn’t start at the very beginning.”

On what’s happening in shelters now

Elizabeth Berliner: “What has been happening now in 2021 is that as things have been opening up, our intakes are rising again. But what I have to point out is that they are not higher than they were prior to the pandemic. They are approaching what they were in 2019. And so as we think about the intake of animals into our shelters, it’s really returning to what it was. The challenge in that is as with every industry, the sheltering industry is still challenged in how we’re providing care.

“And how we’re offering services. And so there are workforce issues, in terms of staffing and capacity, that are still there. And in 2019, we were actively working to try and decrease animals coming into our shelters through intake diversions and other programs. And so it feels overwhelming at this point. But truly it’s matching where we were before the pandemic, with potentially fewer resources and other challenges. Shelters really reflect the challenges of society on so many levels. And so we are feeling those same sort of pressures in our animal shelters.”

On tips for how to take on a pet for the first time

Alexandra Horowitz: “I think the best bonds come from really realizing that the animal is not just a member of their species, or in the case of a dog or cat, a certain member of a certain breed, but individuals. And trying to see them as you would see any individual others. Having their own personality, and needs, and things they desire and want. The relationship comes from that.

“And I think also reward comes from that. In seeing, Oh, my dog lives in a smell universe, which is different than my visual universe. And being in admiration of that, even if I can’t replicate it myself. So taking the time to really see who those animals are and what their needs are, I think leads to a rewarding relationship on both sides.”

What do shelters need moving forward?

Elizabeth Berliner: “We need the support of our community, which I think we have. And so the message is not that our community is letting us down or that adoptions are decreasing. They’re actually on par for what they were. But we need to continue to find foster parents and adoptive parents. We need to continue to access financial support. All of the same things we needed prior to 2020 is what we still need.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.