Gimme Shelter: Animals as the Soul of Home

By Valerie Andrews

Photo by Paolo Nicolello on Unsplash

“Animals are such agreeable friends—they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms.”  –George Eliot

A growing body of research shows that we depend on animals for our general health and wellbeing.  As people began to shelter in place, earlier this year, we’ve realized how much they depend on us as well. 

“It’s fair to say animals miss people as much as people miss animals,” says Dan Ashe, president of the American Zoological Association.  “In zoos, humans offer a form of sensory stimulus to other species. Without them, the penguins, pandas, elephants, chimpanzees, and even camels and meerkats seem a little bored. “The variety of smells that come through the zoo every day are enrichment for them. Their day is less interesting or varied without us.”

When deprived of human company, some species—particularly elephants and great apes—get a little needy, demanding extra attention from their caregivers. In May, handlers at Kansas City Zoo came up with a novel solution — they took three penguins to the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum for a cultural infusion.  “We’re always looking for ways to enrich their lives and stimulate their days,” Randy Wisthoff, the zoo director, said.  “The penguins absolutely loved it.” The museum’s executive director, Julián Zugazagoitia, noted that the three Humboldt penguins “seemed to react much better to Caravaggio than to Monet.”

Who knew that that penguins would be such culture vultures? These three little guys are clearly in the privileged one percent.  Since the first months of the coronavirus,  many other zoos have been struggling with food shortages and extreme budget cuts.

The outlook, overall,  is much sunnier for household pets.  

When we got the order to shelter in place, we turned to cats, dogs, and parrots for comfort and companionship.  And as we hunkered down at home, we realized that everyone needs a support animal—and the daily gift of pure, unconditional love.  

Last week, I talked about our long-term partnership with pets with Bob Vetere, one of the founders of the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), former CEO of the American Pet Products Association, and author of Wags to Riches: How Dogs Help Us to Succeed in Business and in Life.  

In your book you note some surprising things you’ve learned from your study of dogs, and your fondness for golden retrievers.  

Well, anyone who’s tossed a ball to a retriever learns a good deal about single-mindedness and perseverance.  But I got to thinking about what dogs are like when they’re on their own.  My study of how they evolved has also taught me a lot about creativity and teamwork.  For one thing there is no alpha dog. In the wild, dogs change places according to the task at hand. Leadership shifts as needed.  There is much more emphasis on collaboration than on dominance.  And we humans would do well to take note of that.  

Today’s CEOs tend to act less like lead dogs and more like lone wolves. By definition a lone wolf is a creature that’s cut off from the larger kinship group.  That animal’s behavior is dangerous and unpredictable.  Rogue CEOs are similar and their predatory behavior has seriously damaged the American business climate in recent years.

Then there’s the issue of personal authenticity. There’s something wonderfully transparent about dogs—you always know what they want and what they are thinking.   As Diogenes said, back in the fourth century BC, “We would do well to emulate the dog for he is unfailingly honest and always does his business out in the open.”

You say that dogs also anchor us at home and help us make the transition from the work world back to private life.  What do you mean by that?  

Dogs offer us a constancy that few relationships can match, patiently waiting for us to come back from all our far-flung journeys.  No matter how much time has passed, they are still there, holding onto something they have always seen in us. Our souls, maybe.

As a CEO, I’ve spent a good deal of  time on the road.  If you total up the travel over the course of my career, it would come to 20 years, the same length of time that Odysseus was gone from Ithaca.  My routine was more predictable and prosaic.  No Sirens or Harpies, just the fatigue that follows endless meetings, bad weather, delayed flights and the challenges of airport security. Yet my dogs were always there by the door, waiting to greet me, no matter how late I rolled in. 

My two golden retrievers sat at my feet and, under their care, I was transformed from a weathered traveler into a family man.  Made fit, somehow, for human consumption.  Or at least soothed enough to be fully present for the ones I love.

Through the years, my dogs have grounded me and accepted me wholeheartedly.  Often I’d sit there in the dark, talking to them, sharing all the details of a grueling week, and then head upstairs refreshed, to be with my children and my wife.

I suppose you could say we love dogs because they make us feel more relaxed, more human. More at home in our own skin.

 

Is that why we’ve seen a rise in pet adoptions since people started sheltering in place? Are we depending more than ever on animals to lift our spirits?

Yes, especially as we realize that this pandemic may be around for a couple of years in one form or another.  People who are living alone or in a relationship that’s less than ideal, have found that pets are good companions and provide a steady, calming influence.  Research shows that many millennials have been using pets as a substitute for children as they continue to pursue their careers.  Now many say they are reluctant to start families while there is so much uncertainty in the world.  A lot of them are “renting” a pet because of the pandemic—that gives them the flexibility to return the animal, too.

What do you mean by “renting a pet”? 

We also refer to it as fostering.  A person takes on a homeless pet on a temporary basis until a permanent owner can be found.  Some shelters now allow you to take a pet short term if you’re temporarily out of work or otherwise homebound.

We see a big increase in people fostering older dogs as well.  That’s a bit different than adopting puppies.  In most cases older dogs present less of a challenge and adapt more easily to your home life.  They are already acclimated to people and will need less care as their owners resume a normal lifestyle (whatever that will be). It’s easy to  keep these pets happy and they provide wonderful companionship.

Do you see a rise in first-time pet owners, too?

People living alone or in unhappy home situations who may have never thought of having a pet before are fostering or adopting in recent months, to counteract the effects of social distancing. Before the Covid-19  health crisis people had the outside world as an escape from loneliness or stress. Since total return to interactions with others is at best delayed for the time-being, we expect this trend of pet adoption to continue.

A friend has been fostering cats for a local shelter.  She has become something of a local celebrity here.  Now that the shelter has run out of adoptable cats and dogs,  folks are approaching her offering to take her cats.  Or, failing that, they are offering to care for the them. Some buy food and gifts so they can visit the cats. People just need to be near animals right now because they bring us back to basics.  Love. Touch. Emotional connection.

Photo by Tran Mau Tri Tam on Unsplash

Do some people prefer their pets to their housemates?  

As shelter-in-place continued under Covid guidelines, we started hearing of increased preference for the pets!  

One of the sorry results of isolation has been the increase in domestic abuse charges and the impetus for divorce.  While having a pet can help with the stress, there are those who will abuse anything — a spouse, a child, an animal — as their frustration builds. So that’s the negative fall-out. 

What about pet care?  Has  this been more difficult of late?   

During lockdown, folks learned about the hazards of do-it-yourself grooming.  There are countless pictures on social media sites showing pets with horrible buzz cuts and shocking pink toenails.  This is what happens when people spend too much time at home.

But as the country begins to reopen, things have gotten easier. Most people treat their pets like family members so there are many concierge services providing pet walking, pet sitting, grooming at home.  One company will even come to scoop the poop off of your lawn if you are elderly or disabled—or just plain don’t want to do it. 

One of the things that I believe will keep people from returning their animals when they go back to work is the availability of these services.  It almost like sending your young child to daycare while you resume something approaching “normal life.”

Are we buying more toys to keep our critters occupied so we can do our work at the dining room table? 

Thanks to the internet, toys began to trend  even before the pandemic.  And right now we want to reward our pets a little more for all of the comfort they’ve been giving us. Some of us are overfeeding them. Others are giving them the opportunity to get high.  My all-time favorite pet treat surfaced two years ago and has caught on like wildfire.  It is call Meowijuana, a concoction based on catnip.

If that’s the case, pet treadmills may be the answer.  Some even let you walk the dog without spending too much effort while the dog’s part of the track keeps moving briskly.  Great if you’re disabled, or not in as good shape as your dog.  And perfect for the couch potato who just plain hates to get up and go.

Dogs need their own superheroes, too. Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

How do you keep a hyperactive dog busy while you hold your meeting on Zoom?  

As a last resort, there are anti-anxiety medications (for the pet or you).  There are electric fences so you can let the dog run free on your property–and highly sophisticated doggie doors to safely let your pet in and out on its own schedule. 

There are also dog walkers and pet sitters who will entertain your critter.  Alternatively, you can get down on the floor and wrestle with your pooch and that will satisfy him for awhile.  If you have a tiny dog this could be fun.  With a St. Bernard, not so much.   

Are there specific health benefits for pet owners?

At the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), a coalition of companies and academics have been studying the health benefits of owning a pet.  We have gathered and organized over 30,000 scientific research papers detailing everything from the benefits to autistic children, soldiers with PTSD, Alzheimer patients, isolated seniors, and kids with learning disabilities. Pets provide so much more than the incentive to get out and walk. 

Our website contains a goldmine of stories and research in this area.  Humans who have pets tend to have lower health care costs. By one estimate, people with pets spent over $12 billion less on health care last year than those without pets.  

Dog owners tend to be more physically active, since they take their dogs on daily walks. This is good for heart health. They are also less likely to have high cholesterol and diabetes.

From age 50 to age 90, all pet owners have lower blood pressure, pulse pressure, mean arterial pressure, and a reduced risk of hypertension.

But it’s not just older folks who benefit.  Concerned that college kids weren’t getting enough exercise—only a third of them move enough every day — we started a program matching students with shelter dogs.   After exercising the dogs, these kids showed improvements in health and fitness, cognitive abilities, quality of life and mood.

Photo by Magdalena Smolnicka on Unsplash

Does having a pet help children, too?

There have been studies by a number of schools including Colorado State Veterinary School and Purdue University Veterinary School —these show improved classroom performance by students who have pets at home. 

I am Chairman of the Board at Green Chimneys in Brewster, NY,  a school for children with learning disabilities.   Located on a farm and animal preserve, Green Chimneys has been written up in The New York Times, and a few years ago, the kids even appeared in a segment with Mr. Rogers.  Green Chimneys is one of the most amazing places I have ever seen. The animals provide inspiration to the children and have a calming effect that has enhanced their school participation.

HABRI has conducted research in this area as well.  We learned that kids with ADHD are helped by pets.  These grade schoolers tend to have better concentration, steadier energy and be more engaged with other students.

In another study we found that autistic kids had fewer behavioral problems after getting a service dog at home.

What’s the danger of our pets getting the coronavirus?

There is a growing body of evidence that says that animals can’t transfer the disease to humans because it mutates in their systems.  That view may change as more studies are done.  But scientists have found the first dog in America to contract the virus and its owners appear to be just fine.   

What pet is sheltering in place with you?

Now that our last golden retriever is gone,  I’ve had the opportunity to get to know our cat a little better. A few years ago my younger son moved and needed to find a home for Mr. Pepper, so my wife volunteered to take him.  We’re always joking that  he should join the army and become Sgt. Pepper or go to college and become Dr. Pepper.  While I have never been a cat person, I feel he has been a positive addition to the family.  Mr. Pepper is now 19, and when he passes, I am hoping we will get another dog.

What about the less familiar animals people choose as their companions? 

There are a growing numbers of ferrets, guinea pigs and turtles, as millennials start families  in somewhat restricted quarters.  I do know a few folks with miniature horses.  They are adorable and not as crazy to keep as you would think.  Needless to say, having a sizeable piece of property is a huge plus.

More people are also raising chickens at pets, and some companies even make diapers for them. 

What about snakes?  Can you shelter in place with your fiance’s boa constrictor without creeping out?  

Only if you are blindly and madly in love with your fiancé.  And even then there may be a time limit.  But that’s not the weirdest scenario. My cousin kept a pet alligator in his bathtub when he went to college.  There’s a little bit of love in us for all God’s creatures.

Recommended Reading

The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them by Wayne Pacelle

From Wags to Riches: How Dogs Teach Us to Succeed in Business and in Life by Robert Vetere and Valerie Andrews

Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home — And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals by Rupert Sheldrake. 

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