CHUCK NORRIS: Pets as a Prism for Viewing Our Mental Health

In an opinion piece earlier this week in the Los Angeles Times, author Malathi Raghavan, a clinical associate professor at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, writes about the daily images of “a population in motion,” as the horrifying Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its second month. As more than 4 million refugees and 6.5 million displaced people take flight to find a semblance of safety, many are shown taking their pets with them.

“Reports and pictures from my friends leaving Kyiv were harbingers of what was to come — that animals too would be displaced in massive numbers,” writes Raghavan, who earned her doctor of veterinary medicine from the Ukrainian State Agricultural University in Kyiv. “I’ve seen Ukrainians make desperate pleas on social media to residents in places like Mariupol, imploring those remaining behind to check on pets entrusted to family and friends, who themselves had to flee or have not been heard from in days.”

Like so many other examples of outreach and efforts to help the victims of this tragic event, the American Veterinary Medical Foundation, Veterinarians Without Borders and others are stepping up in support. It may seem a small and hardly significant aspect of the war, but it signifies the deep emotional bond that can occur between people and their pets and how these feelings can intensify during times of stress. “Whatever the long-term results of this devastating war, one thing is visibly circular: Human suffering begets animal suffering begets human suffering,” says Raghavan.

Turning our sights homeward, it is worth taking another look at acknowledging the strong sense of bonding so many Americans have with their pets and how the number of pet owners has grown in the unsettling world in which we find ourselves. As recently pointed out by NPR, in the first year of the pandemic, 23 million families adopted a new pet. “Others, working from home, started paying more attention to their existing pets,” says reporter April Dembosky.

A 2021-2022 trend report by the American Kennel Club bears this out. “Despite or perhaps as a result of the stress and unusual health precautions Americans experienced in 2020, people focused more than ever on their pets,” reports Harriet Meyers. “For the first time, pet industry sales exceeded $100 billion.” In a National Pet Owners Survey that includes the responses of 9,200 U.S. pet owners, nearly 50% of new dog owners “said their decision was influenced by the pandemic.”

I have always seen this as a good development. So, I was a little shocked when I read of a new study by researchers from the School of Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast involving 143 pet owners and 103 people who did not own pets exploring “whether animals helped to reduce depression, stress and feelings of isolation during lockdown.” Their findings? “People who are strongly attached to their pets were more likely to suffer mental health problems during the Covid-19 lockdown than those who are less attached,” reports

While this is a small sampling by a yet-to-be-published study, it did get me thinking about how this bond so many of us have with our pets can amplify our emotions in ways that are not always healthy. Says Dr. Deborah Wells, who led the Queen’s University study, the strongest predictor of mental well-being issues was related to the level of attachment to a pet. “The study highlights that there is emotional vulnerability in those who are highly attached to their pets,” says

As an American Pet Products Association 2020 State of the Industry Report makes clear, pet ownership is now a major financial investment for owners — a commitment that could lead to significant additional financial stress. According to the National Pet Owners Survey, more than 90% of respondents took their dog for at least one visit to the veterinarian in the last 12 months. Not an inexpensive necessity, especially given that less than 2% of American pet owners have the benefit of pet insurance, according to Routine veterinary visits now make up the second-largest segment of a dog owner’s expenditures after food, says the National Pet Owners Survey.

When your pet is sick in this pandemic-dominated world, the need to see them get well can be overwhelming. The cost can often create a source of intense internal conflict.

That sense of conflict is about to escalate as we now learn that it is not just doctors and nurses who are burning out and leaving their profession. Now, add to that mix an emerging crisis in veterinary care in this country as veterinarians are leaving as well.

“The overwork and short staffing of the pandemic has affected veterinarians as much as it has other doctors and nurses and dealing with the constant moral dilemmas and emotional output is driving many to burn out,” says Dembosky. According to studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of six veterinarians has considered suicide. “Even before the pandemic, vets’ mental health was suffering from empathy overload and compassion fatigue,” Dembosky adds.

In some parts of the country, it is now not unusual for dog owners to wait months for vet appointments or drive to vets far from home to get care.

In the early months of the pandemic, veterinarian Kathy Gervais could see things getting worse. This prompted her to help organize the Veterinary Mental Health Initiative, which offers free support groups and one-on-one help to vets across the country.

“Burnout, compassion fatigue, managing panic attacks, how to communicate with both supervisors, colleagues and clients when you’re under extreme deadlines or very intense stress” are some of the issues that are confronting vets, according to Veterinary Mental Health Initiative founder and director Katie Lawlor.

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