For 30-year-old Jarell Wilson from Detroit, COVID-19 isolation only intensified their struggles with depression. Self-isolation and working from home would’ve been worse, too, if it weren’t for their two pets, a cat and a dog.
“Pets have helped me in so many ways,” they say. “I wrestle with depression and Mia, my dog, was often the only reason I would get out of bed at times. And Zelda has definitely been a comfort. Whenever I’m crying, no matter where I am in the apartment, she comes to find and comfort me.”
For many LGBTQ+ people across the country, the pandemic has forced them to be isolated from their chosen families, to live with people they may not be out to, and to face increased levels of discrimination. A 2017 study supported by the National Research Service Award Postdoctoral Traineeship from the National Institute of Mental Health showed a linkage between the lack of social support and a rise in depression. For many, where human support is unavailable, support from animals can be a positive source of comfort and companionship. Further, per the findings of a 2021 study examining the power of pets in the lives of LGBTQ+ young people experiencing homelessness, pets have positive mental health impacts for queer young adults experiencing homelessness.
For many queer people, pets are considered a part of their (chosen) family. A poll by Harris Interactive has shown that 90 percent of LGBTQ+ pet owners believe that their pet is a member of their family. Moreover, two-thirds have also bought their pets presents for the holidays. Taylor Hewitt, a 23-year-old bisexual woman from Kalamazoo, couldn’t agree more.
Hewitt adopted Buffy, an 8-month-old kitten, in September 2021. She says that having a pet has made her life significantly better and that “she has quickly become a large part of my life.” “I consider her to be my family,” she says. “I am able to rely on her for comfort and love, and she is able to do the same for me.”
For those who are marginalized and othered, a 2018 study from The University of Pennsylvania found that companion animals offer their LGBTQ+ owners “unconditional love and acceptance … through both verbal and physical communication.” So for people who have experienced love from a biological family that is conditional because of one’s sexuality or gender identity, a good cuddle with an unconditionally loving pet can help curb loneliness.
A 2021 study by the Archives of Sexual Behavior, focused on minority stress and pet-based sources of resilience, found that pets contribute to building resilience and provide uniquely beneficial emotional connections. It also found that, for queer people, pets were “vital sources of support that promoted thriving” and pet relationships promoted happiness that increased participants’ life satisfaction.
“We just know that the few moments a person is petting, hugging and sometimes kissing the dog on its head are relaxing,” says Jared Wadley, Therapaws board member and therapy dog handler. Therapaws is a Dexter-based organization that promotes therapeutic effects of the human-animal bond through interactions with qualified therapy dogs. “It’s a time when the person forgets his or her troubles to simply embrace the canine, who loves the attention.” The joy and smiles from the visits are priceless, and the Therapaws volunteer handlers are more than happy to facilitate these human-animal interactions, he adds.
For those dealing with mental health conditions, pets can also be a great source of stability and provide a sense of routine. Hewitt believes that having a pet has provided her with a sense of much-needed consistency in her life. Having Buffy, she says, has helped her stick to a routine that aids in the care of her mental health. Further, the fact that Buffy is with her as she wakes up, and is there to comfort her as she falls asleep, is very important to her.
“While I still feel alone sometimes, having a pet has helped me feel significantly less lonely. When I am feeling sad or stressed, her presence alone helps to ease my worries,” she says.
Beyond their ability to abate the feeling of isolation, pets also help create connection for queer people. Wilson, for instance, feels that their dog’s boisterous, joyful energy has helped attract positive people into their life.
“Some of my friends were made because of my dog,” they say, adding that having pets has helped them learn to love people better. “And my cat has reaffirmed to me how valuable boundaries are, and to not engage with people who can’t respect them.”
But it’s not just young people whose mental health benefits from animal companions. According to a 2018 study by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, LGBTQ+ adults 50 and over who own a pet had higher perceived social support, especially those with a disability and limited social network size, compared to those without a pet.
The bottom line is that, for many LGBTQ+ people, pets provide a reason to wake up in the morning. As Hewitt says, “It’s a good feeling, and without her I feel as though I would not be able to receive the same kind of care. She gives me a sense of purpose.”