Coronavirus: More People in WNY Seek Animal Interactions

Use of pets to de-stress is one of the reasons, experts say

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

No wonder about 85 million American households in the U.S. have animals, according to figures from Human Animal Bond Research Institute.

Whether it’s a pleasure horse or a pet poodle, an animal brings companionship, activity and a few health benefits, like lowered blood pressure and reduced risk of stroke and heart attack, according to numerous studies.

More people than ever have tapped into the benefits of emotional support animals and therapy animals, which can help with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and many other mental health issues. But outside those concerns, many people crave connections with animals and find them relaxing.

“During this COVID thing, my dogs are keeping me sane,” said Tricia Korzelius, case manager and outreach coordinator at Buffalo CARES, an organization that fosters dogs and occasionally cats surrendered by owners or shelters.

“I can’t go into work, but the dogs are keeping me on a schedule,” she added. “They get me out of bed and out of the house every day. I read reports about people who have been depressed but feel so much better because they’re getting out and hiking.”

She believes that the reason pets make such a difference is that animals offer unconditional love and trust.

“It doesn’t matter if you screwed up at work or you made a fool of yourself or if you have trouble in your relationship,” Korzelius said. “Your animal always loves you. You can’t do anything wrong in their eyes. We see dogs who were abused who still missed their owners. We had a 15-year-old dog whose owner overdosed and she missed him so much.”

Especially when coming from a difficult background, it can take animals some time to trust new people in their lives. Once that bridge of trust is built, “you become their world and it gives you a feeling of adequacy,” Korzelius said.

Because humans crave physical connections, experiencing social isolation has been particularly tough on people who live alone. Korzelius said this is a time where pets can make a big difference.

“It’s so nice to have my animals I’m cuddling with and petting,” Korzelius said.

Suzanne Vullers operates Mountain Horse Farm in Naples, a B&B operation that provides guests with “cow cuddling” and a “horse and cow experience” with her six horses and two cows.

Vullers wants to “give them the same experience I get from it: connecting with nature and animals,” she said. “In this time, we’re so focused on being inside and in front of screens. Everything you can do virtually.”

She wants to offer guests a reprieve from screens and the companionship of farm animals, such as lying in a pasture against one of her placid cows or grooming friendly horses. Vullers is certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, an organization for mental health and equine professionals that incorporates horses to address mental health and personal development. She has worked with horses all her life.

“I know what they do for me,” she said. “It’s always been the relationship, not competing and winning prizes. It’s always been about getting that connection and forming that friendship.”

When visiting family in the Netherlands, she observed similar work with cows and realized she needed to add bovines to her herd.

“We work with them differently, as cows like to lie down,” Vullers said. “They’ll lie down for long periods of time. Horses, they don’t really interact that way with people they don’t know. They may lie down, but that’s rare.”

By offering experiences with both animals, Vullers can meet the needs of more guests who crave animal interactions. To meet her animals’ needs, she limits the opportunities for guests to visit with the animals to one to two sessions up to four days a week and hosts the interaction in a space where the animals are free to move around.

“You see the animal relax,” Vullers said. “That’s where the benefits of your heart rate and blood pressure going down and you relax and can breathe. All that good stuff happens because it comes from mutual desire to connect.”

Of course, bringing home an animal without being ready can increase stress. Would-be owners should make sure they have the resource in place to care for the animal for life.

Anyone seeking a farm animal “fix” can find it volunteering with animals at local shelters or walking a busy or elderly neighbor’s dog or offer to pet sit at a friend’s home.