How Pandemic Pets Have Changed the Way We Experience Lockdowns

Graphic by Erin Sass

On a rainy day of early February, 2020, my family and I eagerly drove to a farm in northern Ontario to adopt one of ten German shepherd puppies we spotted on Kijiji. The idea of a full lockdown at the time seemed distant––surely, COVID (which was still an epidemic and not a pandemic) would never come here. The puppies were shy and hesitant, hiding under piles of straw, huddled together and shivering in the cold. The one we connected with, however, was much different from his nine siblings. He would run in circles, sticking his snout in the straw, sneezing if he held it in there for too long. His wagging tail was a permanent habit which clearly annoyed the other puppies. We brought him home that day, and named him Roger as he drifted off to sleep on the ride home. We began crate training the next day––just in case we’d be gone for a few hours––unaware that Roger would never be home alone after all. 

The simple truth is that without his emotional support, the first lockdown would have taken a greater toll on our family’s mental health. Roger gave us a tangible, fulfilling purpose.

The life we call “normal” came to a halt in March, though home life felt less isolating with Roger there. He happily accompanied us on quarantine walks, took naps under our desks while we did remote work, and would lick spilled milk off the floor from one too many whipped coffees. His walks and feeding schedule created a routine that helped us avoid slipping out of the structure we had built for ourselves. The simple truth is that without his emotional support, the first lockdown would have taken a greater toll on our family’s mental health. Roger gave us a tangible, fulfilling purpose.

In December, my older brother tested positive for COVID-19. For two weeks, Roger would lay by his bedside and stick his snout into the blankets––just as he did at the barn as a puppy––as his downtown apartment flooded with sunlight in the mornings. He swapped his energetic, tail-wagging attitude for wide eyes and ears thrown back in an effort to be more therapeutic. When the dog walker would pick him up, he would turn back at the door as if to say, “I’ll be home soon, sit tight, and take care.” During my brother’s recovery, Roger’s companionship aided in his healing. It was an unconditional, altruistic love that poured out of the large brown eyes which saw us for who we were when we didn’t even know ourselves. He offered therapy in simple ways, from moments of fresh air and laying in the afternoon sun, to picking up on cues that my brother may not be able to take him on the same hours of adventure that he did before. 

As people found more free time in their once busy schedules at the start of the pandemic, pet adoption seemed like the go-to solution. Naturally, the companionship is great for both mental and physical health. Shelters saw adoption rates soar, with waiting lists in the dozens for individual puppies and kittens. Animals that lived in shelters for years were suddenly adopted overnight. These changes came in a matter of months following Roger’s adoption. Gone were the days where one could drive an hour north to adopt a puppy from a farm and be the first one there. 

While a pet may seem like the best solution for social recognition, perhaps we need to look inwards first.

Of course, pet adoption during the pandemic comes with major caveats. Many worry about the fate of these pets after work and school meet back in-person. We’re taking notice of separation anxiety, higher stress levels, and the dreaded––though likely––outcome of pets surrendered at shelters altogether. The level of commitment, care, and money is toned down now that one has time to meet every single one of their pet’s needs. While the benefits of a pet during an isolating time can provide us with the necessary company, the positives should not outweigh the fact that some of these pets may meet a grim fate. When the owner they’ve grown to love over these months begins to go to work in-person, pandemic pets will only feel the same seclusion that we felt in the beginning weeks of a lockdown. Though we are easily clouded by the thrill of something new and exciting in a time where the next day seems to always feel like the last, we need to have the ability to take responsibility, pause, and consider the commitment we are signing off to. 

Many of us feel lonely, which is a natural emotion to have. Even in a room full of people, the potential anxiety that comes with forming a cohesive conversation after months in isolation can be daunting. While a pet may seem like the best solution for social recognition, perhaps we need to look inwards first. Focusing on ourselves before we make the commitment of adopting a pet can offer long term benefits for both the individual and the animal. If it just so happens that now is the time, a snout-in-the-straw moment, then a pandemic pet can make all of the difference in navigating a post-pandemic world. 

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