Owning or bonding with pets provided an even more important benefit to human well-being than usual during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The value of companionship and emotional support that pets provide has become more significant during the pandemic,” said Dr. Fane Cross, veterinarian at the Routt County Humane Society Wellness Clinic. “People have become attached to their pets on a level that may not have been as rich before the pandemic. Adopted animals that people bonded with have been hugely impactful on their lives, bringing pets into their homes during an otherwise lonely time.”
As pet adoptions remain higher at the local humane society, pet and human volunteer partners at nonprofit Heeling Friends are back visiting with staff, patients and family members in common areas at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.
Registered Nurse Melissa Uchitelle-Rogers, a Heeling Friends volunteer who works in palliative care at YVMC, has a lot of experience with the physical benefits of humans interacting with pets. Not only does she specialize in caring for patients living with a serious illness, she also is the co-founder of the Oak Creek-based nonprofit Colorado Comfort Canines. The nonprofit brings together certified animal-assisted therapy dog teams with people during times of extreme distress.
“All patients and families in the health care setting can benefit from dogs,” the nurse noted. “The areas where dogs are really so strongly needed are where a patient has pain issues or a difficult diagnosis. Dogs are really very innate, very intuitive in knowing when someone needs some extra TLC.”
The nurse said some of the health benefits of being around loving pets include lowering rates of loneliness and depression, decreasing anxiety and improving a person’s mood. Therapy dogs in the hospital can help family members or patients who are scared or upset while waiting for a surgery or procedure.
“They have been proven to decrease stress levels with people with long-term illness or long-term rehab needed for injuries,” Uchitelle-Rogers said.
Pets can lower human heart rates, blood pressure, respiratory rate and levels of stress hormones, the nurse said.
“Dogs are creatures that are very present. Because they do live in the moment, they help people become more present and less preoccupied, such as for a test or results. A dog comes into a room and helps pull the patient into that present moment,” Uchitelle-Rogers said.
Heeling Friends Co-Director Lynette Weaver said the nonprofit currently is evaluating new partner teams of owners and pets in small groups in order to boost the volunteer ranks after some teams left during the pandemic. New pairs are trained to become animal-assisted therapy teams.
Weaver said the work of the Heeling Friends teams results in many smiles and more relaxed patients, but some stories are more powerful. A few years ago, for example, a stroke victim in the rehab clinic began to move a damaged arm to slowly pet a therapy husky.
Another day, a large Newfoundland therapy dog provided a shoulder to cry on for a half hour for a distraught woman at the hospital who did not say a word but “thank you” afterward, Weaver said.
“It takes their attention off their illness or pain for whatever expands of time and focuses on the dog and gives a time of relief and release,” Weaver said.
Another illustration of the significant impact of pets on human well-being is when a beloved pet dies. Owners can experience emotional and physical grievance similar to losing a human friend, Uchitelle-Rogers said.
“You go through stages of grieving just like for a person you love. What we find with palliative care and hospice are people mourn animals as strongly as a person, just not as long, The subconscious mind can’t differentiate between species lost,” said Uchitelle-Rogers, who also has watched dogs grieving for a lost dog in the household by curling up on their beds or not eating for a few days.
With loving pets at home, owners can experience greater relaxation, but the need to care for pets also gets people off the couch.
“Pets have to be taken care of, usually outside, so it gets the person up and out. If you are feeling sad or lazy, you still have to get up and get out the door,” Uchitelle-Rogers said.
Pets help owners breathe more fresh air, get exercise, and explore nature and trails.
“They are built-in workout companions,” said Uchitelle-Rogers, whose family currently has two cats and six dogs, including two certified therapy dogs.
Human and pet partners who would like to get involved with Heeling Friends can visit heelingfriends.org or email email@example.com.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.