5 Great Reasons to Adopt a Dog During the Pandemic
Research explains why dogs are good for psychological and physical well-being.
Posted April 12, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Animal shelters across the country are reporting a surprising silver lining to the current pandemic: an unprecedented rate of animal adoptions. People who’ve wanted a dog for years but never had time for house-training or regular walking, or whose work involved regular travel, suddenly have the time to adopt, or at least foster, a dog. This is obviously good news for dogs, since shelter life even in the best of circumstances can be really stressful. But it’s also very good for people, given the research showing that pet-owners experience greater physical and psychological well-being. One study even found that dog owners live longer. In fact, dog owners had a 20 percent lower risk of dying over the course of that 12-year study, and were 23 percent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease.
What leads pet owners to experience such remarkable benefits, and how can people reap the rewards during this pandemic?
One explanation is that pets help buffer the negative effects of stressful life experiences. For example, pet owners who take a math test in the presence of their pet experience lower heart rates and blood pressure reactivity than those whose pets are not present. The current pandemic creates stress for all of us, including financial pressure, health concerns, and uncertainty about when and if things will ever get back to normal. Adopting a pet may help reduce the negative physical effects of stress on our bodies, which in turn can reduce our susceptibility to minor and major illnesses.
Dogs can also help reduce stress and improve well-being by increasing physical activity. Most dog owners regularly walk their dogs, which of course also leads to valuable health benefits. Even in cities under strict lockdown orders, exceptions are typically made for pet owners – which has led to reports of people loaning their dogs to others as a way to share the benefits of some much-needed escape from locked-down homes. Perhaps you’ve seen the jokes on social media about dogs complaining about too much walking during the pandemic. (My two dogs can certainly relate.)
Pets may also provide valuable emotional support. Adopting a pet may be especially beneficial to people who live alone, and therefore have much less social connection during social distancing guidelines. Dogs have a particular ability to make connections with humans: That connection you feel with your dog isn’t just in your mind. In fact, dogs can distinguish different types of emotional expressions on people’s faces and are particularly sensitive to human voices.
Even more intriguing is research showing that people who stare into their dog’s eyes show elevated levels of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone.” Oxytocin is automatically released into our bodies when we engage in nurturing activities, such as hugging, kissing, and breastfeeding. It also leads to increases in feelings of love, security, and happiness. These findings tell us that staring into our dog’s eyes makes us feel good in basically the same way that other forms of intimate connection also make us feel good.
And it’s not just that humans feel good from sharing eye contact with their dogs; dogs who stare at their owners show the same elevated levels of oxytocin. (On a practical note, it’s decidedly NOT a good idea to gaze intently into the eyes of a dog you don’t know, who may see such behavior as threatening and potentially respond in an aggressive way.)
Perhaps most important, many people report that their pets give them a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging. Studies comparing pet owners to non-owners even reveal that people with pets feel less lonely. Compared to other types of pets, dogs may be especially helping in reducing loneliness. Why? They provide absolute and unconditional love: They are always happy to see us.
As an illustration of the power of this unconditional love, consider this joke about the differences between dogs and spouses told to me several years ago by a man attending a talk I gave on the science of happiness. Imagine you come home from work one day, and put your dog and your spouse in the trunk of your car, and then drive around for an hour. When you open the trunk, which one is still happy to see you?