KAUFMANN: Pet support for stressful times

During this pandemic, many of us have suffered from elevated levels of anxiety. Some of us have struggled with loneliness and depression during quarantine and isolation periods. Pet owners have had a home field advantage, so to speak, in coping with these difficult times.

Mental health professionals have been prescribing emotional support animals for years, especially for treating anxiety and depression. Whether or not we have a prescription for our pet, we can experience the therapeutic effects of their loyalty, love and companionship.

Military veterans can especially find comfort and purpose in caring for a dog or cat. Do you know an exceptional serviceman or woman who needs a furry companion? Organizations like Pets for Patriots (petsforpatriots.org) help match veterans with shelter animals and even provide funding where needed to help defray the costs of pet ownership.

Whether we have a cat, dog, bird, fish or other creature, the little bit of effort we invest in care can provide big returns. Studies by the National Institute of Health have found that pets can help reduce stress, improve our heart health and help children with social and emotional skills, among other benefits.

Several studies show that spending time interacting with an animal lowers cortisol levels and blood pressure. Cortisol, the “fight-or-flight” hormone, is triggered when we feel endangered. Pets help us calm down and feel safe.

Children who practiced reading aloud to therapy dogs in school have exhibited improved behavior, attention and social skills.

“Dogs are very present,” says Dr. Ann Berger, a researcher with NIH. “If someone is struggling with something, they know how to sit there and be loving.”

One NIH study of teenagers with diabetes gave one group a fish to care for, while the other group was “fishless.” The fish caretakers were much more consistent about monitoring their own personal glucose levels than those with no pet.

An important consideration is to match the right pet with the right person. For example, watching a fish quietly swim may be perfect for someone who wants to lower stress. Others of us could use more exercise, so walking a dog every day could be a better choice.

Can I share a personal story? My heart broke two weeks ago when our first dog suddenly passed. We adopted Ruby from Berrien County Animal Control in 2014. After an adjustment period, she became an integral part of our lives. Over the years, she provided emotional support for my sensitive teenage son, chased the chipmunks in the yard, followed me around the house, and basically gifted each day with goofy, unbridled joy and love.

I wrote this down shortly after she passed: “I am so thankful to Ruby for helping us all be healthier. She made our lives so much richer, got us out of ourselves, calmed us down, and reminded us what is important.”

There are many animals awaiting adoption in area shelters and through rescue groups. If you have the means in your pocket and the room in your heart, consider giving one of them a home before the winter sets in. In return for some food, water, shelter and attention, pets can offer us the emotional stability we need during these uncertain times.

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