How many weeks of social isolation does it take to crave a puppy? For Julie Taylor, a TV writer and producer in Glendale, Calif., the answer was two.
Stuck at home with her husband and two teenage children following coronavirus stay-at-home orders, she started to get the itch in mid-March for something furry, happy and oblivious to the stress going on around her.
“It hit me pretty much as soon as we locked down. I really wanted a dog,” said Ms. Taylor, 48. “I can turn on the news at night and three hours later I’m still watching. I get sucked in. I was hoping a dog could help me be more in the moment.”
So earlier this month, the family adopted an 8-month-old pug named Bentley from a friend of a friend, immediately transforming their home life from gloomy to giddy. For the teenagers, the puppy offered a reprieve from the disappointment of a stunted social life. Bentley “has been a fast distraction,” Ms. Taylor said. “He’s added a lot of life into the house.”
In a matter of weeks, our lives have been radically altered. Social calendars have been wiped clear, leaving many of us with nothing but time to spare. And so, what better way to fill the time, and the silence, than with a furry companion? Cue the puppies, kittens, bunnies, hamsters and even a few rats, all finding new homes among the Covid-confined.
On Petfinder.com, adoption inquiries in the four weeks between March 15 and April 15 jumped 122 percent from the previous four weeks. Americans are fostering, too, as shelters look to empty their facilities during the pandemic. Since March 15, more than 1,500 people have completed online foster applications for the ASPCA’s New York City and Los Angeles foster programs, a 500 percent increase compared to typical application numbers usually seen in this period.
“Bringing a new life into a home is an act of optimism,” said Judith Harbour, a licensed clinical social worker for the Animal Medical Center on East 62nd Street in Manhattan, pointing out that many animals in shelters need homes now. “So there is an idea that some people might have: I can do this good thing right now.”
A pet is also a way to wrestle control back into a life that feels unmoored. Our routine may be thrown, but dogs still need to be walked, fed, cleaned and nurtured. A pet’s schedule gets us out of bed and maybe even out of our pajamas and onto the street for some fresh air.
We’ve also been looking for ways to beat back the boredom and loneliness of coronavirus quarantine, turning to outlets like Zoom cocktail hours and Netflix parties where we binge watch “Tiger King” with friends and family we may not actually get to hug for months. But unlike our virtual companions, a pet is actually on our sofa alongside us, breaking through the isolation.
Kit Bonson, a neuroscientist in Silver Spring, Md., had the foresight to foster two rabbits on March 8, before many states shut down. She figured the country was headed for a collective hiatus, so she went to a House Rabbit Society bunny match day in search of a foster pet.
“I wanted to have companionship if we did in fact shut down,” said Dr. Bonson, 57, who lives alone. She found two: a little white rabbit with ruby eyes and a white calico with a stripe running down its back. The pair were bonded, trading kisses and food. Like many of us stuck at home, they’ve gained some weight in Dr. Bonson’s care, dining on kale and strawberry tops. Dr. Bonson doesn’t know how long she’ll be fostering them — the monthly match days where they might get adopted are on hold indefinitely — but she expects them to be with her for a long time.
“They’re my daily joy,” she said. “These rabbits jump up. They jump up in my lap. It’s really great to feel like somebody wants to hang out with you. It’s one thing to Skype with people, but you’re not able to hug them, and I can hug a rabbit.”
Of course, pets are not without complications. And in a time that is as tedious as it is difficult, a new animal poses its own challenges. It is another mouth to feed at a time when millions of households are facing the prospect of financial hardship, if they’re not already in the thick of it.
There’s another elephant in the room, too. We’re all home trying to avoid contracting a serious virus that could leave us unable to care for our charges, at least temporarily. Bring home a new pet and you may have to enlist a friend or relative to play back up should you get sick. (Fortunately, there is no evidence that pets can spread coronavirus to their human companions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
It may also be hard to meet all your pet’s needs. Although pet care is considered an essential service in New York and other states, many veterinarians and other pet providers have reduced services or temporarily closed. Ms. Taylor in Glendale says she hasn’t even begun to think about how to get her pug’s next round of immunizations, which he will need relatively soon. “I don’t even know how it works right now,” she said.
Puppies face another challenge as they start out their lives in confinement. They’re social creatures that need time around other puppies and people. “There are some serious pros and cons to getting a puppy right now,” said Annie Grossman, the owner of the School for the Dogs in the East Village, which is conducting webinars on how to train and socialize a puppy in confinement. “You’re at risk of having a puppy who’s spent his critical socialization period not experiencing all the things he needs to understand about the way his world is going to look.”
How do you explain to a puppy that you’re usually away at work five days a week? Or that dog runs are places where puppies can meet up and run around? Ms. Grossman suggested finding unusual sounds online — children playing, skateboards in a park, horns honking — and playing the clips for your pet. Dress up in unusual outfits with hats, coats and scarves. Take your dog for walks and to parks, if they’re open. Open the windows wide during the 7 p.m. clap-outs for health care workers.
What our quarantine pets lack in a social life, they make up for in endless attention from their owners — plenty of walks and few, if any, hours spent in a crate. But one day, we will emerge from our homes and presumably go back to work and some sort of life that resembles our previous ones. When we finally have somewhere to go again, our pets will have to grapple with a life that does not include us being around them all the time.
To prepare them for your eventual departure, Ms. Grossman suggested feeding them and immediately leaving the room — to take a shower, or even hide in the bedroom and check your email. “Your dog is making a good association with all things having to do with you,” she said. “You want to think about what associations your dog is making with you leaving.”
Ms. Harbour, of the Animal Medical Center, is not terribly concerned about post-Covid pet regret, likening the arrival of a four-legged companion to the birth of a baby. “It’s never a good time to have a baby, but then you have the baby and you fit it in somehow,” she said.
Besides, she added, “we don’t know what our world is going to look like in six months — our lives are going to look so different.” For some of us, those different lives will include a furry friend.