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How to stay sane at home with the help of your pet

While social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, try these creative ways to bond with your furry BFF.
Is working from home making you stir-crazy?
Is working from home making you stir-crazy?Bryn Nowell / Bryn Nowell
/ Source: TODAY

While Americans are increasingly isolated from one another during the coronavirus pandemic, we can take comfort in the companionship of our pets — and even have some fun while we’re at it.

“I think in times of uncertainty and fear, you latch onto the things that are constant,” Dr. Marty Becker, a veterinarian and founder of Fear Free Happy Homes, told TODAY. “It’s that predictability when we come home from work or shopping — or even the next room — and our pets greet us like conquering heroes or rock stars. That’s rooted in unconditional love and loyalty, and laughter as well. … They’re actually good for us. It’s all about emotional well-being.”

A woman hugs a dog in front of a computer.
Cristina M. Molina, an office manager in Los Angeles, is working from home on a rotating basis during the coronavirus pandemic with her beloved dog, Porky.Cristina M. Molina / Courtesy of Christina Jackson

Now is the perfect time to practice enrichment activities that stimulate the minds of our pets and strengthen our bonds. For instance, Becker and his wife recently adopted a senior dog named Quin’C and have been teaching her new tricks by rewarding her with praise and treats.

“Dogs are lifelong learners,” he said.

We can play games with our dogs, such as creating a scent hunt by hiding little bits of kibble or treats around the home — under the bed, at the side of a dresser, or the top of stairs. Becker noted it’s important to avoid hiding treats in the couch to keep it from being “disemboweled.”

“Dogs are so food-driven, especially if you do it before their meal, it'll be absolutely joyous,” he said.

A beagle wears heart glasses.
Dogs typically relish attention from their people during social distancing, no matter how silly.Christina Jackson

If children are home from school, they can create do-it-yourself projects to make toys for pets. Cats love batting at feathers tied to the end of a stick or string because it engages their prey drive.

The Beckers recently cut holes in a box to create a whack-a-mole game for their dogs. Becker lay on the floor poking a turkey dog through the holes, letting the delighted dogs eat a little bit from time to time.

A cat enjoys a box fort.
Empty boxes make wonderful cat forts, as a kitty named Dawn demonstrates.Susan C. Willett / Life with Dogs and Cats

“You have never seen a more engaged animal in your life than with that little hot dog shooting up everywhere,” he recalled with a laugh. “We had probably 15 minutes of fun with one turkey hot dog.”

Pets often enjoy being combed or brushed, or having a smear of peanut butter or squeeze cheese on the side of the tub during a bath. You can try cooking pet-friendly recipes for treats or “pupcakes” as a special reward.

A dog poses as a writer wearing glasses.
Pets deserve rewards for their work distracting us from the stresses of daily life and global pandemics.Lisa Begin-Kruysman

Or if your pet is on a diet, snack together on carrots, blueberries or apples. At mealtime, instead of using a bowl, scatter kibble in the yard to engage their hunting instincts.

When working at home, consider pulling another chair next to your desk so your pet can sit right beside you. It makes for terrific #WorkingFromHome photos when you need a break.

A cat stretches out on a desk chair.
Susan C. Willett gains inspiration for her blog Life with Dogs and Cats from office mates like her cat, Calvin.Susan C. Willett / Life with Dogs and Cats

Photographer Peter Scott Barta said there are lots of fun ways to capture Insta-worthy photos of pets. He suggests using squeaky toys to get their attention or putting peanut butter on the roof of their mouths for tongue shots (#TongueOutTuesday, anyone?).

Though he hasn’t tried dressing his golden retriever, Parker, in costumes or clothing yet, he’s amused seeing dogs dressed up on Instagram.

A dog dressed up for St. Patrick's Day
Yoda celebrates St. Patrick's Day in style.Bryn Nowell / A Dog Walks into a Bar

For videos, try using the slo-mo setting on your smartphone when your cat or dog is active. For really funny slow-motion videos, blow bubbles around them.

“To get your dog jumping up and right when he’s biting down on a bubble is absolutely hilarious,” he told TODAY.

A golden retriever tries to bite a bubble.
Blowing bubbles for pets can create terrific photos as well as slow-motion videos.Peter Scott Barta

Barta's general pet photography tips include:

  • Remember to get down on their level to see what they see.
  • Look for interesting angles. Don’t photograph the obvious.
  • Look for light. Window light is absolutely beautiful and watch for those sun rays streaming through your window blinds and landing on your dog or cat.
  • Photograph your pet with other friends in the house, whether it be another pet, stuffed animal or human.
  • Fast shutter speed and great light always help, which can be tricky when indoors. Having your pet next to a window will help with that.
A wet golden retriever puppy after a bath.
Peter Scott Barta's puppy, Parker, grins after a bath. Using squeaky toys can help grab a pet's attention for a photo.Peter Scott Barta

Barta is also a fan of playing peekaboo with dogs and clicking the shutter when they respond, often with a tilted head.

“They’ll connect with you with your eyes, but then when you hide from them it’s like, ‘Where’d they go?’ Then they’ll either come around the corner and look for you, or give you that sideways turn and their ears come up,” he said. “So that’s always a great shot as well.”

Of course, there’s always cuddling with your pet on the couch to watch a movie like “Benji,” or the free livestream of cute animals via the “Critter Cam” from the nonprofit Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, California.

Baby goats
The nonprofit Helen Woodward Animal Center is offering a free livestream of adorable animals like baby goats as a way to soothe anyone struggling with social distancing.Courtesy of Helen Woodward Animal Center

Whatever way you decide to enjoy your pet’s company will benefit you both. While these times are incredibly stressful, they can also offer a reminder to slow down and enjoy our furry friends in ways they deserve.

“In many cases in busy lives, we’ve given pets the time we can spare and the love we can share,” Becker said. “They, in return, have given us their absolute all. So maybe now is the time to return a portion of the debt we owe them.”