Jeff Knollmiller says his 14-year-old lab, Trevor, saved his life.
“I don’t know if I would have made it without (him),” the 64-year-old Palm Springs resident said of the dog. “I was shoved in this little tiny space surrounded by all this animal love.”
For these last 15 months, Knollmiller spent many afternoons watching Netflix guilt-free, cuddled on the couch with Trevor tucked into his left side and his now deceased cat, Chase, on his right. “They’re like our kids — they’re family,” Knollmiller said. “I’ve realized that more so than ever during COVID.”
A recent survey from Rover.com, an online platform for pet sitters, reported that 93% of people said their “pandemic pet” improved their mental and/or physical wellbeing in the last year. More than 80% said it made working from and being home more enjoyable.
Even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention touts the benefits of pet ownership, including decreased blood pressure, cholesterol levels and feelings of loneliness, and increased happiness. So, it’s no surprise pet adoptions surged amid COVID-19 restrictions despite many shelters closing to the public — rescue animals were even TIME magazine’s “Pet of the Year.”
But as California reopens, some pet owners (yours truly included) are worried about what going back to in-person work will mean for the fur-babies who kept us company during the peaks (or, more aptly, the lows) of the pandemic. Our pets, too, will have some adjusting to do. The Rover.com survey found 40% of respondents were anxious about returning to the office and leaving their pet at home.
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Palm Desert resident Julie Harris is using this summer to get Katana, the dog she adopted last year, accustomed to spending more time alone.
“The biggest problem I am going to have is separation anxiety we both will suffer when, hopefully, I find a job,” the 62-year-old told me.
Katana was going with Harris to the grocery store — one of the few places they went during the pandemic — but now it’s too hot for the dog to wait in the car.
An hour at a time, Harris said, “I am breaking her in.”
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Harris wasn’t planning on adopting another pet — she already had four cats — when Katana arrived at the mobile home park. Harris looked for the dog’s owners, questioning neighbors and contacting Katana’s microchip company, but no one claimed her.
“The dog showed up when I was very depressed,” Harris said.
She’d just been informed that her furlough was over and, instead, she was unemployed. When Harris took in Katana, she could tell the 5-year-old husky-lab mix was sad, having been abandoned by her owners.
“At least I had a job to do, so to speak,” Harris said. That job was trying to make Katana happy. After months of sighs and whines, the dog finally realized that Harris was now herperson. “She knows when I’m sad, she knows when I’m happy, she knows when we’re going to do something fun.
“If she thinks I’m really sad, she’ll try to get in my lap — and she’s 62 pounds,” Harris said. “She’ll just flop down, put her chin on me and wait for me to pet or talk to her.”
With all the uncertainty in her own life and in society, Harris added, “pets really do help.” On days she doesn’t want to get out of bed, she does because the cats need to be fed and the dog needs to be walked.
More than 2,340 animals were adopted from the Palm Springs Animal Shelter last year — a record number of adoptions — compared with 2,048 in 2019. From March 2020 until this June, the shelter was adopting by appointment only.
“I’ve been calling it ‘panic adopting,’” said Catie Voglio, representative for Friends of the Palm Springs Animal Shelter. “Everyone was at home and they had the time and energy to spend with a pet, and a lot of people took that dive that maybe they had been waiting to take.”
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Knollmiller, who adopted Trevor as a rescue in 2009, can attest to how a bond with an animal can help people through difficult times. For Knollmiller, that includes not just the isolation brought on by the pandemic, but also being diagnosed with HIV and later getting divorced.
“I had the animals to keep me going — to keep me focused on something other than myself,” he said.
The long-term HIV/AIDS survivor shared that Trevor gave him a reason to live over the last year, helping him through his darkest days.
“He sensed it and he’d be extra close to me,” said Knollmiller, who recalled looking at his dog and thinking, “No, I can’t go anywhere because no one can take as good care of him as I can.”
Pets can help their owners enjoy life, feel loved, reduce stress, provide a sense of purpose and help them maintain a routine, according to the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging. The poll asked a sample of adults ages 50 to 80 across the U.S. about their pets in October 2018. The majority who responded also reported that their pets helped keep them active and connected to other people.
Knollmiller, who stopped going to the gym amid the pandemic, takes Trevor on two walks a day. It gave both of them a chance to exercise as well as interact with other people and their dogs.
“You didn’t feel so alone being out in the world like that,” he said.
How can pet owners prepare for change?
The responsibility of pet ownership (or, one might say, pet parenting) is powerful. When you feel like no one else on the planet would care if you were gone, you know that your little furball will.
Cosmo, my cat, has often been the one thing to pull me out of my melancholic moments, to stop me while I’m crying on my living room floor by whacking me on the head and asking for food. When sleep is uneasy, the sound of his purring can lull me into restfulness.
But he’s sensitive and I worry about what’s going to happen when I need to go back to the office. My cat isn’t the kind of cat you can leave alone for a weekend at a time. The stress makes him sick. Knowing how anxious he gets when I’m gone makes me more anxious to leave. I’m not sure how either of us will get used to being away from each other for eight or 10 hours at a time.
Is there a ‘Bring your cat to work day” we can instate?
Pet owners will need to ease their pets into new routines, said Voglio at the Palm Springs shelter.
“If you were home 24 hours a day and never even went to the grocery store, your animal might struggle a little, but there are ways to train around that,” she said. “It’s taking slow steps and going 15 minutes at a time.”
The American Kennel Club suggests reducing separation anxiety in dogs by encouraging them to spend more time away from you, in the yard alone or by sleeping in their own bed; working up to you being away for longer periods of time; giving them plenty of exercise; and providing interactive toys. And don’t be anxious in front of them because they can pick up on it, the club said.
“The more you stay relaxed and behave like everything is normal, the more likely your dog will be to follow your lead and accept it when it’s time for you to go,” the club posted on its website.
Cats are a little more difficult to train, but experts recommend much of the same, especially if they’re indoor cats — like my Cosmo. Since he doesn’t get to chase anything outside, he pretty much relies entirely on me for stimulation and play.
Having and training a pet is a “constant learning process,” Voglio said.
When in doubt, pet owners can try to seek professional help. Cosmo and I are seeing another veterinarian on Monday — fingers crossed this one might help us with his separation issues (I’ll see a human doctor for mine).
Not everyone is concerned, though
Not much is changing this summer in Karen Heidt’s condo in Cathedral City — except the time that she takes her newly adopted dog on his morning walk. Heidt, who is retired, was a bit of a “homebody” to begin with, she said.
Heidt started looking at photos online of the available dogs last October after her previous dog, Beauty, died. It was her way of coping with the loss.
By the following month, Heidt was on and quickly off the waitlist for a 2-year-old black and white Springer Spaniel mix.
“I thought, ‘My goodness he’s a great looking dog,'” the 77-year-old said, noting that his coloring matched that of Lucy, her cat. More than 6 months later, her new Oreo-colored companion keeps her busy and active.
“Nico and I are forever,” she told me.
“I’m only hoping I last as long as he does so I don’t have to give him away at the end,” Heidt said, only half-joking.
Despite early fears amid media reports suggesting that more animals are being returned to shelters now that life is beginning to resemble what it was before the pandemic, that isn’t happening at the Palm Springs shelter, according to Voglio. Adoption rates are still good — between 10 and 15 per day — just not for larger dogs like Katana, Harris’ 62-pound pooch.
“We’re just seeing a lot slower adoption rates for our big dogs,” Voglio said.
Many of those are strays whose owners never came to pick them up.
“The adopters, at least, that we saw came in over the pandemic really committed to those animals,” Voglio said. “They really put time and effort into picking those animals out and, after a year, I think they love them.”
It’s not just new pets who need might need adjusting to post-remote life. Cosmo used to be able to handle the length of an average workday, but, like Voglio suggested, he’ll need to be eased back into them.
Part of my plan is to play with him more in the morning to get some his energy out. I’m also willing to try calming products but I’m not sure, for example, if the plug-in diffuser I recently purchased is having any effect.
Maybe I need to start acting more like a dog owner. Employers seem to understand when someone needs to go home for lunch to let the dog out. I might say, “Excuse me, but Cosmo needs his lunchtime cuddles meow (now).”
And so do I.
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