About a week into quarantine, my husband and I were sitting on the couch when he turned his computer screen to show me an article he was reading. There was a picture of a cute dog, and a headline that suggested walking a dog was the best way to stay sane in these decidedly insane times. I rolled my eyes and took to Instagram to ridicule him for trying to use a global-health crisis to further his long-standing campaign to bring a pet into our lives. Three days later, we brought home a four-month-old puppy. His name is Barry.
While that might seem impulsive, my husband has been angling for a dog for roughly eight years—almost the entire time we’ve been together. He regularly sends me pictures of happy-looking dogs, volunteers to walk his family dogs even in the middle of Chicago winters, and has jumped at every opportunity to dogsit, an attempt to not only hang out with a four-legged companion, but also slowly convince me of how wonderful it would be to welcome a furry pal into our home. I, in turn, have given him lots of reasons for why a dog hasn’t made sense for us: We work a lot, we travel a lot (for business and pleasure), we like going out with our friends for dinner and drinks. In short, I valued the freedom and flexibility we enjoyed as a childless couple in a big city, and I worried that a dog would rob us of that lifestyle before I was ready.
The fact that dogs will be dogs has continually helped my case. Every instance of a puppy visitor peeing on our brand-new bedroom rug, eating the bread I just baked after snatching it off the counter, or ripping apart a piece of Tupperware in an attempt to get at the leftovers inside felt like a point in my favor. A dog was just too much trouble. Then the coronavirus handily dismantled our lives.
After two weeks of covering depressing news, with workdays and weekends quickly bleeding into each other, I realized that we had nothing but time, sequestered in our home for the foreseeable future. If not now, when?
Unsurprisingly, my husband and I were not alone in our calculation that a pandemic-mandated quarantine might be the best time to bring a pet into our lives. Pets have been shown to help ease feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression—making them seemingly ideal companions for an emergency situation that demands isolating ourselves from friends, family, and our normal day-to-day interactions. Pets can also decrease feelings of isolation, and force us to get off the couch every few hours, traits that are perhaps even more important in the era of social distancing, says Kitty Block, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. According to PetPoint, an application that collects data from more than 1,000 animal-welfare organizations in North America, in the past three weeks, adoption rates have varied greatly across the country, while instances of fostering have increased significantly in aggregate.
As stay-at-home orders spread around the country, recommendations for how to cope are suddenly everywhere. There are suggestions on how to support your favorite small businesses, donation funds for laid-off workers, and pleas to take in animals that might be stuck in shelters without enough caretakers, or worse. As quarantines have become more and more restrictive, interest in pet ownership has seemingly ballooned.
“The demand has grown exponentially,” says Amber Burton, the founder and director of veterinary and rescue operations at Wolf Trap Animal Rescue in Virginia. She says that prior to the pandemic, if Wolf Trap brought in roughly 50 puppies and held adoption events, in about three weeks it could expect the majority of those puppies to have a home. Now it fields as many as 150 adoption applications within the first 24 hours of a virtual meet and greet with a new group of puppies. Block, too, is hearing of increased demand at lots of shelters for both adopting and fostering.
The wave of new interest in puppies is so intense that would-be puppy adopters can wind up applying multiple times and still not have a pet to take home. And while fostering is often a speedier option, for the first time ever, Wolf Trap has a waiting list—just to foster a pup—that stretches to about 200 people.
Obviously I get it. When you imagine untold weeks of pacing the same home and seeing and talking with the same limited number of people, or even just your own reflection, the idea of a cute, cuddly companion—one you can pet, take walks with, and talk to (with the added benefit of them not talking back)—is suddenly incredibly appealing.
And the truth is, having a puppy helps. Having something to focus on other than my own anxiety and fear is nice. With a puppy, our household is forced into a new routine—the type of schedule and consistency that experts say is crucial during turbulent times. We have to wake up to take Barry for an early walk (okay, my husband has to wake up to take Barry for an early walk); we have to make sure Barry gets outside to exercise; we must ensure that he eats meals at regular intervals. Plus, he’s adorable. Barry helps us see joy in the little things, like when he first successfully made it down the stairs by himself, nervously squealing the entire time.
“Research supports that being around our dog makes us feel good,” says Phyllis Erdman, a psychology professor at Washington State University. Our collective pandemic-puppy moment isn’t necessarily good for the dogs, though. Erdman worries about what she calls the “Christmas-puppy scenario.” “People have time now and want to hug up on their animals,” she explains. “When this is over, people who have adopted these animals might find they don’t have time for them, or they ignore them.” And for some, a prolonged economic downturn caused by the coronavirus could make having a pet financially untenable, forcing them to make hard choices about whether they can sufficiently care for an animal in the long term. There’s also the question of just how much emotional support scared and anxious humans should expect their pets to be able to give them. Erdman notes that some animals that have been rescued from bad situations, or that have been in shelters for a long time, might have their own anxiety or emotional trauma, and layering the owner’s on top of that could be unhealthy for everybody.
Still, everyone I spoke with underscored that, as long as new owners act intentionally and with long-term planning in mind, the prolonged stretch of time at home might provide a unique chance for owners to bond with new pets. (Hi, Barry.) This difficult period may mean that people become more attached and attuned to their pets than if they were seeing their animals for only a few hours a day, which may help get them through the hurdles of pet ownership with slightly less frustration.
My experience so far suggests that there’s probably something to that idea. While housebreaking was hard, and it certainly isn’t ideal when Barry decides to bark for more attention while I attempt to have a series of Zoom meetings, our puppy is making us unreasonably happy. During a lengthy period of sadness and uncertainty, it has been cathartic to laugh at the random things Barry has decided to be afraid of—black plastic bags, parked bicycles, large trucks, the back alley, and stacks of cardboard boxes, to name just a few. And our walks provide a sense of purpose and structure. Having a new puppy has also helped us forge stronger connections with our friends and family—giving us all something to DM, call, FaceTime, and text about other than illness and angst.
Barry has given us the invaluable gifts of levity and joy during this extraordinarily miserable crisis. I’m not really sure how we’ll repay him, but we’ve got lots of time, right here at home, to figure it out.