Integrative Pet Vet column: How your pet companions are helping with COVID-19
Integrative Pet Vet
As individuals and as a society, we are being challenged in innumerable ways by the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders. Financial concerns, health worries regarding potential infection, alterations in work and school schedules, reduced social opportunities, and changes in inter-personal interactions have driven up stress and anxiety levels. High levels of ongoing stress results in increased blood cortisol levels that can impair immune functions and contribute to depression and reduced mental health.
Immune and mental health status are of particular concern now with the threat of viral infection, especially because COVID-19 can have such an intense and serious effect on immune-compromised individuals. This does not mean that everyone experiencing stress and anxiety are depressed, are immune compromised and will succumb to this infection. These are complex issues with many important, personal components. However, recognition of simple ways to support overall health and manage stress are vital.
Pet companionship plays an ideal, supporting role during this challenging time. Not only does pet companionship benefit immune function, it improves quality of life, contributes to better cardiovascular health, lowers the risk of obesity, reduces stress and anxiety and decreases depression. Receiving these benefits from pet companionship does not mean that you must have constant contact. Improvement in immune function has been found with brief contact during petting. Even observing fish in an aquarium has documented health benefits. Daily play activity and walks with pet companions can provide physical activities that can be very helpful for both the care provider and the pet companion. While pet companionship provides valuable benefits, it cannot replace appropriate medical care for those affected by COVID-19.
The stay-at-home restrictions and school closures have been disruptive for children. Pet companionship may be helpful because interaction between pets and children has been shown to reduce stress levels in children, reduce loneliness and anxiety, provide social support and boost mood. Interestingly, children with pets have fewer respiratory and ear infections in the first year of life. Interaction with pets also contributes to increased physical activity with its many health benefits.
Keep in mind that even with all these benefits, careful selection of the appropriate pet companion is critical. Having a pet is a long-term responsibility and commitment that requires daily interactions for care. Pet companionship can also create stress especially when the home routines and pet personalities don’t match the owners. For example, a dog that is aggressive to other dogs could be an ongoing challenge in a multiple dog household or a high energy dog in need of multiple, long periods of exercise every day can be difficult for an elderly person with limited mobility. Pet health issues can present financial burdens and issues with administration of medications.
Remember that many of the health and quality of life benefits that pet companionship provides does not require pet ownership. Just sitting with a friend’s pet for brief periods can have benefits for the immune system and stress relief. Walking the neighbor’s dog provides opportunity for physical activity and exposure to sunlight and increased vitamin D production. Vitamin D is important for the immune system, management of inflammation and mental health.
An important point to remember is that pet companions are not currently thought to transmit COVID-19. However, it is recommended that individuals ill with COVID-19 restrict contact with pet companions in the same way as restricting contact with other people. Have someone that is not ill care for the pets and follow CDC guidelines.
Pets play an important role in our daily lives. Now is a time to celebrate their contribution to our lives while striving to optimize the health benefits of the interaction. Take time to focus on their physical and emotional needs. It will directly benefit you.
If you have questions about pet companionship, contact your veterinarian.
Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.
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