The power of pets during crisis

September 16, 2020

Senior Assistant Multnomah County Attorney Courtney Lords' daughters and their English Shepherd, Bentley

It’s 3:30 p.m. and the Lords house is in a state of high chaos. 

Courtney Lords, a Senior Assistant Multnomah County Attorney and mother of two, types vigorously in the home office she has worked in since the start of the pandemic, finishing a right-of-way acquisition for one of her many road projects. Her daughters have just finished online school for the day, and she can already hear the girls speeding up the stairs from the basement where they take their classes. 

But instead of disturbing their mom, who is hard at work, Lords’ daughters turn to another source of entertainment: Bentley, their English Shepherd. 

“They run around, give him play toys, take him to play Barbies,” Lords says.

Like most working parents of young children, ever since COVID-19 spurred nationwide stay-at-home orders in March, Lords has juggled working from home with no childcare and in-person schools closed.

And just when things couldn’t get any more stressful, dangerous wildfire smoke settled over the Portland metro area last week. As air quality worsened from unhealthy to hazardous, Multnomah County announced Monday that “NO ONE should be outside.” 

“As a parent, there’s a lot of stress that your kids don’t realize you’re carrying — like how are they going to do, not being able to see friends all this time? And how are they going to do with school?” she says. “And mom and dad work full-time, so how are we, as parents, going to juggle this?”

One answer: with Bentley’s help. In the last few months, Bentley has become the primary playmate for Lords’ 5- and 6-year-old daughters.

“They play with him probably three-fourths of the day,” Lords says. 

“It’s been a huge sense of comfort for my kids during this time, because they don’t have their friends. He is like another little play buddy.… It certainly wasn’t something I would have expected prior to COVID.”

When the girls started online school last week, Bentley followed. Now, he spends most of his time in the basement, where the girls take their classes.

“He just sits in the basement and does school with them and then he comes back up to me in the office and then he goes back down and checks on them. Basically it’s whoever is eating,” Lords says.

Aside from providing social relief for her daughters, Lords says Bentley is great to have around after a long day of work.

“It’s just a huge comfort at the end of the day, when I am tired from juggling kids and work from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., to just sit on the couch and have him snuggle into me and pet him,” she says.

The Lords family isn’t the only one finding comfort in their pet during these trying times.

Studies show that interacting with animals can actually have health benefits. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), living with pets can help reduce blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and feelings of loneliness. Dogs especially are linked to lower rates of anxiety and stress in their owners.

But pets are also known to be especially helpful to owners’ mental health during times of crisis. A Japanese study from Frontiers in Veterinary Science after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami found that owning a pet led to lower instances of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) four and a half years later.

“We’re seeing more and more communities look to pets for emotional support for everything from natural disasters to nursing homes to simply providing a soothing presence in a classroom,” says Wade Sadler, director of Multnomah County Animal Services (MCAS). 

“And we’ve seen that impact at home with pet owners; the comfort pets can give someone who’s struggling with loneliness or anxiety. That connection can be invaluable in times like these.”

And while the demand for pet adoption has increased in the wake of the pandemic, the pandemic is the very thing that has hindered many shelters’ ability to adopt out pets. 

For those who are able to adopt, it’s important to remember that not every pet is for every household. If you’re not sure whether adopting is right for you, you can also consider fostering a pet for a local animal rescue agency.

If you have special health considerations, including a weakened immune system, or if you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant, be sure to talk with your doctor about health precautions to take before adopting a pet. A veterinarian can also advise about different types of pets. If possible, talk to a veterinarian before choosing a pet. 

If you’re looking for a companion to help you through this time, and are interested in fostering a pet, visit Multnomah County Animal Services’ foster coordinator can help you find the best pet for your family and skill level. 

If you’re ready to adopt, you might also find your perfect new family member with one of Multnomah County Animal Services’ regional partners in the Animal Shelter Alliance of Portland (ASAP) Coalition, including the Oregon Humane Society, Cat Adoption Team, and the Humane Society of Southwest Washington. In addition to adoption services, these groups provide a range of services for pet owners and potential pet owners.  

Due to COVID-19, many adoption centers are providing only virtual services, so be sure to check websites or call before visiting. 

And remember, if you do have a pet, just as human health is affected by wildfire smoke, your pet’s health is susceptible, too.  

If your pet is coughing, gagging, disoriented and/or stumbling, or if your pet has red or watery eyes, is having trouble breathing, or is exhibiting reduced hunger or thirst, call a veterinarian immediately. 

“These are truly extraordinary times,” says Sadler, “And in the midst of so much stress and change, pets may offer a reprieve and make a difference.”  

Lords agrees.

“For my whole family, Bentley is the sunshine in our eyes right now,” she says. “Whereas we’re all feeling stressed, cooped up, bored and want something different, he’s always happy to be with us.”