The COVID-19 pandemic has uprooted our daily routines as we know them, forcing us to cling to what brings us the most comfort and security. It’s not surprising that so many of us are seeking joy and safety with our furry four-legged friends.
“From those living with dementia to children with autism to those with cardiovascular disease, there’s more and more research coming out on how important animals can be to a person’s mental and physical health,” says Ashley Phillips, a Kelowna-based psychotherapist and clinical counselor.
Phillips says there is a multifaceted approach in terms of why animals are so good for us, especially during times of high stress and anxiety. For starters, the simple act of petting our animals, says Phillips, has a calming effect on us. “Doing so releases serotonin, oxytocin, and prolixin in our bodies hormones that help us regulate our nervous system and helps us calm down and soothe.”
Animals also help us connect to the present moment. “Animals don’t live in yesterday or tomorrow. They’re always present with us,” says Phillips. “Which helps us stay present.”
In fact, a common calming technique that Phillips recommends to her clients is having them watch their animals breathe. “What this does, depending on the animal, is you can actually co-regulate your breathing with your pet. With a bigger animal, like a dog, you can actually see them breathe in and out and we can co-regulate our breathing and that helps us to soothe our nervous system.”
For other smaller animals, Phillips says just watching them breathe helps us return to the present. “It becomes a really good focal point that when a person is getting anxious or overwhelmed, they can watch their animals breathing and can help them return to the present moment.”
And let’s not forget the unlimited snuggles and kisses that our animals regularly give to us. According to Phillips, the unconditional love that our animals offer helps to create a sense of security and belonging that only deepens our bond with them.
“For a lot of people we are naturally going to have some sort of conflicts in our relationships whether or not they’re healthy. But because animals love us so unconditionally, we don’t have to make those repairs as much as we do with other people,” says Phillips. “Animals just love you in whatever shape or form you come in. Human beings can’t naturally give that to us, which means we will have breaks in our relationships with humans sometimes. So we turn to animals because they will always give you that safety and security, and we will always feel accepted by our pets.” Which can feel so reassuring during such an uncertain time like COVID-19.
Pets also inspire us to take better care of ourselves. Even if current external circumstances are overwhelming at times, Phillips says we tend to stay more motivated to get outside and go for a walk because we know our pets need to.
Our animals do so much for us, so how can we, in turn, show them the same kindness and love?
Phillips says, firstly, it’s essential to find an animal who suits our lifestyle. “It’s important to find an animal that’s a good fit otherwise it’s not kind to the animal. For example, if a dog, like a border collie, is naturally hardwired to be constantly stimulated and needs a ton of exercise, and you know that your lifestyle wouldn’t align with that, no matter how much you might love or want a border collie, it’s unkind to adopt one. When adopting an animal ensure that all of their needs are going to be met, physically and mentally.”
Additionally, Phillips says it’s key to read an animal’s signals. “Animals are used therapeutically but their needs are important too. They need to feel safe. Animals can experience trauma as well. It’s our duty to keep them safe and provide them with basic needs and lots of love and kindness.”
Keep in touch for updates, inspiring animal stories, training and enrichment tips for your pets and ways to ensure that you and your pet stay safe and well during these challenging times.