Four-legged, furry friends can help ward off the isolation blues, Montreal researcher finds
MONTREAL -- There is a way to break isolation during periods of confinement without breaking the law.
Admittedly, the technological means of keeping in touch with one's fellow humans are now vast, but no one will claim that these virtual exchanges are the equivalent of physical contact, the absence of which can be trying, particularly for people living alone.
However, this is where Cooper the dog,Ginger the cat and even Nemo the clownfish can come to the rescue.
Universite du Quebec a Montreal social psychology professor Catherine Amiot has been studying human-animal relationships for years.
“We can think that, in the context of a pandemic and confinement, the ability of domestic animals for some people to reduce stress, secrete more calming hormones, could be particularly strong and active,” she said.
Some studies - but not all, she warns - demonstrate that “the presence of domestic animals can promote the secretion of a hormone, oxytocin, which is associated with the behaviour of care and attachment so that people will feel good.”
BEST FRIEND OF THE ISOLATED HUMAN
“Also, we know that domestic animals facilitate links between humans,” Amiot continued. “Obviously, we can enjoy it less in the context of a pandemic, but the fact remains that when people cross paths on the street with their dogs, they can still say hello and talk to each other from a distance. Inside the family, too, the animal can spark discussions between people or get people to take care of an animal together.”
Added to this is the fact that research on dogs has shown that going outside and exercising with the dog also contributes to psychological well-being.
Some studies also report a measurable reduction in stress when the subjects were accompanied by a pet during an oral examination.
Of note, the decrease in stress - measured by factors such as pulse, blood pressure, etc. - was greater in the presence of domestic animals than in the presence of spouses. The findings do not show, however, whether the nature of the conjugal relationships involved was analyzed.
Amiot said that the situation in which we find ourselves is very stressful.
“There is a lot of uncertainty and it is as if, at this time, pets can decrease acute stress, could give us some comfort too,” she said. “Even fish can calm us down.”
Studies have been done, for example, in dentists' offices showing that having an aquarium in the waiting room can calm people down.
NOT A REMEDY
Amiot warned, however, that nothing is absolute in such matters.
“Having a pet is not always associated with more well-being or better health. In some studies, yes, people who have pets are healthier, have better well-being than those who do not, but in other studies this is not the case for some people. It is not always necessarily consistently associated with more health or well-being in humans,” she said.
“Based on research to date, the relationship with a pet is not a remedy. Some people do not get these benefits in the presence of pets.”
FURRY ROOMMATE NEEDED
Unsurprisingly, many Quebecers, seeing a form of containment coming before it took on the scale we are now seeing, wanted to find a companion to break the isolation.
Animal shelters have been overwhelmed with requests for adoption - which implies a lifelong commitment as its name suggests - and offers of foster families, an intermediate solution which consists in taking the animal temporarily at home.
“In the first days of the pandemic, when the school closures were announced, but we were not yet in maximum isolation, we saw the number of requests triple for being a foster family,” said Montreal SPCA executive director Élise Desaulniers.
“And even at the shelter, where people show up to adopt animals, weekdays looked like weekend days. There were queues, while March is usually fairly calm with us. There were two, three, four times more requests than at the same time last year or before the pandemic.
“People said to themselves: ‘the children will be at home for a period of time. We're looking for something to keep them occupied.’ Also, several people told us that it had been a long time since they wanted to adopt a cat, a dog or a rabbit, that we never had time and there, and I think that we will have time in the coming weeks.
“It is certain that the idea of being locked up at home for several weeks is much less sad if we know that we are going to have a non-human companion to keep us company. I think there are a lot of people who were looking to break the isolation with a new furry or feathered ‘roommate!’”
FORTUITOUS NAME CHANGE
It was the same story with Proanima, a large refuge located in Boucherville on the South Shore of Montreal.
“We have at least doubled if not tripled the number of host families we have in our regular bank. There are even some for which there were no animals available in the end.” said general manager Anny Kirouac. “We did not run out of animals, but we ran out of animals that could be placed in foster care! I don't think it has ever happened to us in the past.”
Until recently, Proanima was called the South Shore Animal Service and was known by its acronym SARS.
“We didn't have a crystal ball, but we changed it in September 2019. We were just in time! It wasn't the only reason, but it was because I lived in Toronto during the SARS epidemic, so I didn't really like our acronym for that reason!” she said.
ADOPTING DURING THE PANDEMIC
The pandemic has obviously greatly changed the way things are done. Shelters have far fewer animals available, since they only accommodate emergency cases, but they do have them, and the staff on site has been reduced to a bare minimum to respect physical distancing while continuing to care for the animals that remain.
“It is still entirely possible to adopt an animal with us,” explained Desaulniers. “However, the procedures are a little longer than usual, a little more complex to protect our staff and the public. You have to go to the website where the available animals are displayed, fill out a form and an employee will then contact the people to set up an appointment.”
Proanima is also looking to go online for adoptions.
“At Proanima, we have temporarily stopped adoptions, but the situation is about to change,” said Kirouac. “We are seeing how we can start virtual adoptions. The new fashion now is to make adoptions by videoconference so that people can still see and obtain all the information about the animals and that we can go and deliver them at home so that the exchange takes place outside and so that there is no human contact.”
The same goes for host families.
“We have requests as we speak today. People can still go and register on our website under the Host Family tab,” she said.
The same goes for the SPCA, Desaulniers said, specifying, however, that there is now a waiting list for host families, so they are referred elsewhere.
APPEALING TO OWNERS’ COMPASSION
Desaulniers does not hide, however, that she is anxious to see the arrival of July 1.
“The summer peak is always an apocalyptic period with us and everything suggests that it will be even worse this year. Families are already struggling to find accommodation with animals and it is increasingly difficult from year to year with the housing shortage. With the current situation, it may be even worse,” she said.
The SPCA will immediately launch an awareness campaign to ask the owners “to show a little compassion and a little more openness and to accept people, families, who have animals. We are really in a period where we have to show a little more compassion than usual because we, in our shelters, while we operate with a reduced staff, with a limited capacity, we will not be able to take all these animals that we used to take in the past years.”
THE FOSTERING OPTION
Amiot began researching several SPCAs last fall by following new adopters and has continued that research during the current pandemic. She does not hide her great curiosity about the impact the situation will have and on the aftermath of these massive adoptions.
“Pets also have needs when we adopt them. Yes, they will bring us something, they will contribute to our well-being at certain levels, for exercise and stress reduction, but at the same time we must take into account that these are living things that have their own needs, too,” she said.
“Also, we must ask the question: when the confinement is finished, will we have the resources, the time, the energy to take care of this animal? In the medium and long term, once the routine is back, are people really going to have the motivation to continue taking care of the animal's needs?”
Choosing to foster, a temporary situation, may prove to be an ideal solution in case of uncertainty, for Amiot.
Kirouac, for her part, is very confident.
“It is certain that moments like the ones we are living make us realize how much an animal brings us daily in terms of companionship, love, entertainment, but in our adoption process the fact that the adoption of an animal is not temporary is always at the heart of the discussion,” she said. “It is important to have thought about it not just for the COVID crisis or the fortnight or the quarantine, but long term. We always tell them that adopting is for life.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2020.