The first weekend in March was a joyous celebration for Barbara Dixon. Two weeks after receiving her second COVID vaccination, Barbara got to see her two daughters for the first time in over a year. Dixon, who lives in Colbert, suffers from an autoimmune disease that increases her vulnerability to the virus. Her daughters, niece and sister-in-law, who all work in healthcare with COVID patients and live up to two hours away, kept their distance from Dixon to protect her.
During her year of isolation from her family, friends and church, Dixon struggled with depression, which was compounded by the loss of her husband of 36 years Jack in 2017 and her two dogs all within 10 months of one another. Shortly after her second dog died, Barbara adopted Macy from the Madison-Oglethorpe Animal Shelter to have another being in the house. Since the pandemic, Macy’s role as primary companion has been more important than ever to Dixon’s mental health. As a retired nurse accustomed to caring for others, Dixon has kept her focus on daily activities of cooking meals for them both and going to the socially distanced dog park.
“I don’t know what I would have done without my dear Macy,” she said. “I’d not seen my family since Christmas 2019. It’s been just too much. Macy has been my lifeline.”
Dixon’s story is a testament to the importance of animal companionship in times of crisis. Given the last extraordinary year of pandemic isolation, one would assume pet adoptions have increased. Jed Kaylor, program director for the Athens Area Humane Society, said that their shelter has seen about half of their normal adoptions in comparison with previous years. This is on par with the national trend where pet adoptions are down 11% from this time last year, but intake also decreased.
“The big uptick has been in our foster program, which has been about 25 percent,” Kaylor said.
Dr. Sherry Sanderson of UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine is co-conducting a foster cat research study with the AU/UGA Medical Partnership, UGA’s College of Public Health, and Brenau University, on the impact of feline companionship on mental and emotional health in older adults and their interest in and commitment to adopting a shelter cat.
“We are hoping that the study will show a positive effect on the participants from having companionship from a cat. We are evaluating quite a few parameters such as the impact of the cat on loneliness, mental and physical health, degree of comfort participants have from the cat, etc.,” Sanderson said.
So far the study has 23 participants, and they hope to have results to share sometime next year.
The AAHS has provided cats for UGA’s fostering study and partnered with other local organizations to help families with pets during the pandemic. Through the Food Bowl Program, the Humane Society helps fund Will’s Pet Pantry at the Athens Community Council on Aging to provide pet food for older owners in need.
Teresa Woods is grateful to receive food for both her and her 14-year-old cat Babygirl—who Woods says meows “Mama”— through the ACCA Meals on Wheels and Will’s Pet Pantry, as well as veterinary care from UGA’s Community Practice Clinic that the ACCA helped facilitate. Shortly after Woods had hip replacement surgery last year, her brother with whom she was extremely close passed away from cancer. Woods was devastated, but she was thankful, saying, “I’ve got my Babygirl.”
The Cleveland Clinic, a multispecialty academic medical center in Ohio, says that people benefit from animals of all kinds in dealing with a wide range of mental health conditions, including depression and dementia.
“Simply petting an animal can decrease the level of the stress hormone cortisol and boost release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, resulting in lowered blood pressure and heart rate and, possibly, in elevated mood,” said Marwan Sabbagh, director of the clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.
And according to a U.S. News & World Report article, pets also help foster human connection for their owners, encourage exercise, establish a routine and provide a sense of security, all which contribute to overall healthy living. Pets just make us feel better.