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Research tells us that pets, especially dogs, can improve our health. They get us out walking, which is good for the heart. They can also improve emotional well-being, reducing anxiety, stress, even sadness. And for many Americans, pets have been pivotal, helping them cope with the coronavirus pandemic. NPR's Patti Neighmond has more.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Karen McCullough never wanted a dog.
KAREN MCCULLOUGH: A dog would really cramp my style.
NEIGHMOND: McCullough works as a keynote speaker opening conferences nationwide.
MCCULLOUGH: And I love traveling, and I love cool hotels and not worrying about having anything at home. I don't have any live plants in the house, either.
NEIGHMOND: At the beginning of this year, McCullough was really busy and figured 2020 would be her big year.
MCCULLOUGH: And then boom.
NEIGHMOND: Everything changed. Conferences ground to a halt. By mid-March, she was in lockdown.
MCCULLOUGH: Living alone and not being able to go out and not being able to give people hugs - I'm a hugger and a kisser - and, you know, everything that I actually am was taken away from me.
NEIGHMOND: But two months ago, everything changed again.
MCCULLOUGH: Rosie (ph), going to get you. I'm going to get you. I'm going to get you.
NEIGHMOND: McCullough adopted 2-month-old Rosie, a Wheaten terrier.
MCCULLOUGH: Who knew a little Rosie could change my life?
NEIGHMOND: It's a lot of work caring for a puppy, but McCullough says she just loves it.
MCCULLOUGH: I don't have work, really, much work. And the dog has really given me a strong sense - I'm going to start to cry. The dog's given me a strong sense of purpose.
NEIGHMOND: Turns out there's some science behind those feelings. Psychiatrist Gregory Brown is spokesperson for the American Psychiatric Association.
GREGORY BROWN: Something as simple as a handshake or a casual hug with a friend can actually increase levels of a hormone in the brain called oxytocin, which is colloquially referred to as the bonding hormone.
NEIGHMOND: Brown says increases in oxytocin can improve emotional health and well-being. But in this era of physical distancing, that's not happening much.
BROWN: You're creating more space between people, and so definitely there's that aspect that we aren't handshaking as much. We're not giving each other as many hugs as we once did.
NEIGHMOND: And for those who live alone, there's hardly any physical touch. But Brown says there is an alternative.
BROWN: Touching a pet, you know, rubbing your dog on the head can actually help, studies have shown, increase levels of oxytocin in a similar fashion that human touch would as well.
NEIGHMOND: And Brown says it's reciprocal. He points to research showing that when dogs are petted, they also experience an increase in oxytocin. During the pandemic, psychologist Lori Kogan with Colorado State University says it's a win-win for people and dogs. Kogan worked on an online survey of more than 4,000 dog owners. The vast majority described how pets reduced feelings of loneliness and anxiety.
LORI KOGAN: There are so many people that went from having a social life, to interacting with people through the day in person (laughter) that had jobs, had regular schedules, went out in the evenings and on the weekends, and then all of a sudden none of that exists for people. And so their pets really help fill some of that void.
NEIGHMOND: And give people a needed sense of purpose. Psychiatrist Brown says for people at home with a lot more time on their hands, a pet - any pet - can provide some relief.
BROWN: Having a pet - whether you have a dog, a cat, a guinea pig or a fish - can give you a sense of purpose. It gives you something to take care of. It gives you something else to do.
NEIGHMOND: And it's good for the pets, too. In fact, shelters are reporting a greater number of dog and cat adoptions since the pandemic began.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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