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How our Furry Friends Can Reduce Pandemic Stress

Although some students’ mental health has suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been something that helped them get through these tough times: pets. They play a huge role in relieving stress, anxiety, and loneliness during these difficult times.

Lindsay Mehrkam, Assistant Professor of Psychology and the Principal Investigator of the Human-Animal Wellness Collaboratory (HAWC) at Monmouth University, described the meaning of an emotional support animal and the benefits that it can have on the mental health of a student.

“An emotional support animal (ESA) is an animal that provides comfort to an individual just by being present. ESAs can be a wide variety of animal species,” she said. “By definition, they do not receive specialized training to perform a specific task.”

Whether it’s a pet or a licensed emotional support animal, our furry friends can help us get through periods of stress. “Animals can have an extremely positive impact on students’ mental health during this pandemic. They offer us companionship and comfort, reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness,” Mehrkam said.Furry 2

Mehrkam herself has reaped the benefits of owning a pet during these difficult times. “As a dog owner myself, long trail walks on the beach are my favorite parts of the day with my dogs and set the tone for the rest of the day. They help keep me accountable for my own exercise, breaks, and general well-being,” she said.

Christopher Mckittrick is the Assistant Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Monmouth. As a professional who interacts with students on a daily basis, he has noticed how much of a help an emotional support animal can be.

“The expectation that the student has of the animal is one of the most significant indicators of successful relief,” he said. “If a student is expecting and willing to be active and involved in the animal’s care while also actively engaged in their own self-care, I have seen students successfully minimize symptoms common to disordered depression and anxiety.”

Mckittrick also offered suggestions for activities students can do with their pets. “Depending on the type of pet, physical activity (walking, playing fetch, etc.) can help move the energy surrounding emotional responses to events. Practicing mindfulness during the interaction is incredibly powerful and works very well if you have fish or animals living in an aquarium or tank,” he explained.Furry 3

Many students share this same sentiment, stating that their pet has been a great companion during the pandemic.

Isabella Lainez, a junior communication student, noticed that the COVID-19 pandemic greatly impacted her mental health. “I noticed a lot of buildup of anxiety and stress in general and specifically about the unknown/when things didn’t go according to plan,” she said.

However, Lainez was able to rely on her two furry friends to comfort her— a Labrador Retriever named Tana and a Rottweiler named Nala who came into her life during the pandemic.

“Getting Nala during the pandemic helped because she was something to focus a lot of attention around and almost gave a new sense of structure as the day revolved around her and her needs as a puppy.” She said. “[My dogs] acted as a way to lighten the mood, served as a calming presence, and allowed me to ease the stress by going for a walk or playing.”

Demi Ardic, a junior sociology student, has also felt the impact of the pandemic on her mental health. “I am the kind of person that thrives off of socializing, so it really made me depressed,” Ardic said.

Ardic was able to alleviate that stress with the help of her purebred German Rottweiler. “He has just brought me joy and a sense of security back. I have to be on a schedule to feed him/take care of him so he really helps me plan out my day and make me feel more productive,” she said.

Amanda Crocco, a junior English education student, agreed, “I definitely hit a low point during the beginning of the pandemic when we were all forced into lockdown.” However, during those dark moments, her two cats provided a sense of escapism from reality.Furry 4

“My cats have helped relieve my moments of stress by cuddling with me,” she said. “I learned early on in the pandemic that purring is a cat’s way of ‘healing’ you. Every time they sat on/near me and was purring it made me feel safe, like as if they knew I needed stress relief.”

“While COVID-19 has limited physical and social interactions, pets can remind students that they are connected to something other than themselves,” Mckittrick said.

“Pets are always a good investment,” Lainez added. “The emotional support they give just by being there is helpful to anyone, especially those who are lonely, bored, or stressed.”

For those who do not own pets, Mehrkam believes those individuals can still benefit from the mental health support animals provide. “Even those students who don’t have pets can still benefit from exposure to animals in natural settings. For example, a recent study showed that birdwatching can increase feelings of happiness,” said Mehrkam.

Caring for our mental health is of utmost importance, especially during these challenging times. If you are lucky enough to own a pet, whenever you are feeling down, play, cuddle or do an activity that helps you get out of your head. You’ll never be alone as long as you have a tail wagging by your side.


PHOTOS COURTESY of Isabella Lainez

PHOTO COURTESY of Amanda Crocco