During the coronavirus lockdowns, pets are helping many of us keep it together

My cats are a great comfort right now. But your pets are also probably lovely — and yes, I would like to see a cute picture or a video of them, thanks.
Image: Cat
Jaromir Chalabala / EyeEm - Getty Images
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By Jenni Miller

I don’t know what the future holds or how many of us are keeping it as together as we are right now — but I do know that for most of us, it requires having pets.

As someone who has worked from home for over 10 years, the act of being alone all day, which many people are experiencing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, isn’t new to me — it’s more like business as usual. I don’t want to suggest, however, that my routine is inherently healthy, or that I have any answers for the many people around the world who are now in the same boat as me (if they’re lucky enough to have a job that allows them to work remotely, or a job at all). It can be really lonely to work from home, especially if you’re single and live alone, even when we’re all not in the throes of a global pandemic, coping with a crumbling health infrastructure and devastated economy while realizing there is no clear path forward.

As a single person quarantined by myself with no interest in putting others at risk by, say, casually dating, I could really use a hug. But the grim joke of this horrible new reality we’re in is that, just when we need a healing touch the most, we’re forced to make do with virtual happy hours. “The right kind [of touch] can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels, stimulate the hippocampus (an area of the brain that is central to memory), and drive the release of a host of hormones and neuropeptides that have been linked to positive and uplifting emotions,” wrote Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker.

Like many people, I would have probably gone completely stir crazy two weeks ago without Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, Marco Polo, WhatsApp, Instagram and all of the other apps crowding my phone. It’s a welcome change from all the years when I flinched when the phone would ring unprompted; now I can’t stop gabbing and video-chatting and texting people to let them know I love them. There’s something comforting about how being alone in our loneliness is forcing us to reach out in new and innovative ways.

But mostly, I’m making it through because I have my cats.

I wasn’t born a cat lady, but I adopted one as soon as I found a roommate I could hornswoggle into agreeing to it. My first cat, Eloise, saved me a million times over when I was emotionally devastated here in New York after 9/11 and, years later, after the death of my father. When she died, I was beside myself. As I confessed to cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy, her death was almost as bad as my father’s.

In the nearly two years since my mom died, my cats, Isadora and Theodora, have also provided me endless comfort in their own distinct ways. Theodora somehow feels sturdy and calm to me when I need to curl up with someone, whereas her sister Isadora is a little bit clingy when I needed to be needed.

Neither seems to mind too much when I clutch them like sentient teddy bears and they barely notice if I start listening to “My Favorite Murder” at 5 a.m. while I reorganize my closet when I can’t sleep because New York City feels weirder than it did even after 9/11 (unless it’s to beg for breakfast). They don’t care if I wake them when I need to snuggle, because they can sleep whenever they want. They’re just the best.

Your pet is also probably great — and yes, I would like to see a cute picture or a video of them. (Instagram and Facebook are inestimably better right now, filled with way more adorable pictures of people’s pets taken since we’re all stuck at home.)

Don’t have a pet? Adopt one! Foster one! Get yourself a bunny or a rat or a lizard if you want. Find any kind of sentient creature that relies on you, because even if you’re in the throes of a bone-deep depression — or, say, the sort of terror that either has you frozen in place and staring at the wall or sniffing your spice jars to make sure you don’t have COVID-19 — you have to take care of them. It feels good to take care of others, and your pet doesn’t care if your altruism is self-serving. They don’t even know what altruism is!

As a dear friend of mine so eloquently wrote me: “I think when I got my cat, 10 years ago, I thought I wanted to receive affection. What I learned through getting to know Terence is that what I need much more than that is to give affection.”

He added, “And so while I miss human touch right now, and would love to be held and caressed, it is such a balm to be able to lavish affection on him and get outside of myself.”

The summer after my mom died, when I was so desperately awake and tired of the inside of my own brain, but unable to concentrate on anything, I would simply put my hand on Theodora’s flank while she purred heavily. I still don’t know if she was purring from contentment or as a way to calm her stressed-out human friend — or if it came from both.

But whatever her reasons, it worked — and it still does.