Canadians who got pandemic pets say they've experienced mental health benefits

·4 min read
Laurie Brooke gets a lick from her dog, Spike. The Toronto resident says the Yorkshire terrier has helped her mental health. 'He just reminds me to be present, to be here to be with him, to be happy.' (Submitted by Paul Siegfried - image credit)
Laurie Brooke gets a lick from her dog, Spike. The Toronto resident says the Yorkshire terrier has helped her mental health. 'He just reminds me to be present, to be here to be with him, to be happy.' (Submitted by Paul Siegfried - image credit)

Spike was a tiny puppy, almost small enough to fit in one hand, when Laurie Brooke brought him home in May 2021, but he had an enormous impact on her life from the moment he arrived.

Even before the pandemic, Brooke struggled with depression and anxiety, and she discovered having Spike was a good addition to her regular therapy.

"He's like a tool in my mental health toolbox," said Brooke, who lives in Toronto.

Just holding the little Yorkshire terrier and looking into his eyes helped her to focus and be in the moment when she was feeling stressed.

"He just reminds me to be present, to be here to be with him, to be happy."

Spike also helped her with social anxiety. While playing fetch, he would bring the ball to strangers to throw for him, forcing Brooke to interact with other people.

It was a similar experience for Andrea Kovacs, who got her puppy Violet, a golden retriever, after moving from Burlington, Ont., to North Vancouver during the pandemic.

Submitted by Caitlin MacMillan
Submitted by Caitlin MacMillan

Whenever she would take Violet for a walk, it seemed to take forever to get anywhere because people were always stopping her to ask if they could pet the puppy. But as a result, Kovacs got to know her new neighbours.

Violet also helped her during a stressful time. Kovacs had recently lost her mother to cancer and she was having a hard time finding a job for her adult son, who has autism spectrum disorder.

"Moving in a pandemic and settling into a new neighbourhood, not knowing anybody, it took us over a year to find a family doctor, and all those things, it did produce some anxiety … but you turn to your pet and you just say, 'Life's not that bad.' I've got this one who wants to love me."

Submitted by Caitlin MacMillan
Submitted by Caitlin MacMillan

Mental benefits of interacting with animals

In the experience of psychologist Eileen Bona, founder of  Dreamcatcher Nature Assisted Therapy outside Edmonton, animals help reduce a person's anxiety

"There are a lot of neurochemical changes that are happening in your brain. That's helping your brain to calm down, helping you to feel more relaxed, more at ease … because you're outside or you're with a furry creature."

Submitted by Danielle Clark
Submitted by Danielle Clark

She works with people who have anxiety, depression and cognitive issues such as autism. The therapy she offers is mostly non-verbal and involves clients interacting with animals such as horses, donkeys, goats, sheep and chickens.

Bona sometimes has sessions with people and their own animals, and has even been asked to write notes for those who want official recognition that their pet is necessary for their mental health — but it's only something she's agreed to do on rare occasions.

Unlike service animals, emotional support animals don't require special training, and she didn't want to be responsible for a pet that misbehaved in public. 

More legal cases over emotional support animals

Emotional support animals exist in a bit of a legal grey zone, according to Vancouver-based animal law lawyer Victoria Shroff.

She has seen an increase in cases involving emotional support pets during the pandemic. People want to be with their pets full time, including in places where animals might not normally be allowed, such as condos, restaurants or workplaces.

Submitted by Victoria Shroff
Submitted by Victoria Shroff

Another way these pets are different from service animals is there is no legal requirement to accommodate an emotional support animal — they aren't allowed in the cabin area of planes, for example — but that doesn't mean there isn't a case to be made for allowing them in other places.

"If there's a doctor's note saying … this person really, really needs to have a dog with them at work, I think that HR should take a very serious look at that and see how an accommodation can be made because they might find themselves on the other end of a human rights complaint," Shroff said.

While it may be difficult if a colleague is scared of your pet or allergic to them, there are ways to make it work, said Shroff, including limiting where the pet can go in the office.

If someone doesn't want to leave their dog at home all day, having the pet in the office is a good alternative to having to relinquish it to a shelter, which is happening more lately, she said, calling it "the great dog dump."

Brooke said she would never consider giving Spike up.

She is currently on stress leave from her job, but did ask her employer if she could bring Spike to work at some point. The answer was no, but she has considered asking her therapist for a note if she needs one.

Submitted by Christine Cinq-Mars
Submitted by Christine Cinq-Mars

"I understand that jobs have to be done, and you have to be accountable for your work and you should be there. But at the same time, I think a happy employee makes a better employee ... I could see bringing my dog to the office and having the entire office loving him."

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