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Alone no more: People are turning to dogs, cats and chickens to cope with self-isolation

Working from home and unable to go out, people are bringing home dogs and cats for companionship.

Josephine, left, and Nora Caplan, both 13, hug their new dog, Pepper Corona, a 2-year-old blue heeler who was adopted this week from Homeward Trails in Fairfax, Va. (Julianna Caplan)

On a normal Sunday at the PetSmart in Gaithersburg, Md., Lucky Dog Animal Rescue would hold an adoption event and find homes for about 15 dogs.

But as coronavirus news started to spread this past week, the waiting list skyrocketed from 10 to 40 would-be adopters. “And we had 30 adoptions in three hours at that event alone,” said Mirah A. Horowitz, the rescue’s executive director.

Forget toilet paper, milk and hand sanitizer: There’s now a rush to stock up on real necessities, such as cats and dogs. And rabbits and fish, and even a couple of chickens.

Gizmo, the singing Siberian cat, offers tips on how to entertain yourself at home at a time when many humans find themselves spending more time indoors. (Video: The Washington Post)

As schools close and millions of people across the United States work from home, the promise of companionship even in a time of isolation is prompting some to take in animals. Many say they finally have the time to properly train and care for a new pet. Animal rescuers across the country say they are seeing spiking interest in adoption and fostering, as well as offers to help everywhere from open-admission shelters to smaller nonprofit groups.

In California, where 40 million residents were ordered on Thursday night to stay home except for essential jobs or trips, such as getting groceries, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) noted an important exemption.

“You can still walk your dog,” he said.

California tells residents to stay home

That was part of the appeal for Kathy Shield, a University of Berkeley graduate student. After years of wanting a dog, Shield on Thursday adopted a 2-year-old brown-and-white dog from the Milo Foundation shelter in Point Richmond, Calif., and named him Atom.

“I’m a nuclear scientist, so it’s very on brand,” said Shield.

The timing was ideal, because Shield is working from home and can help Atom adjust to his new environment. She’s also excited to have someone to talk to, even if he doesn’t have much to say back.

Plus, it will help keep her on schedule. “Having a dog is going to force me to get up early in the morning, because at an absolute minimum, I have to let it out to pee,” Shield said.

The decision to adopt pets flies in the face of some conventional wisdom that discourages adding a new animal to a household during a stressful or busy time of the year, such as the holidays. But the novel coronavirus has created an almost parental leave-like situation for many people — where, instead of dealing with a sleepless newborn, they’re teaching a dachshund puppy not to chew on the ottoman.

“There’s no question that animals provide incredible comfort and companionship, especially during times of crisis — and they certainly appreciate the attention — so we encourage people to continue to adopt or temporarily foster animals in need,” said Matt Bershadker, president and chief executive of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in an email.

Shelters need the help. Some animal rescues in big cities are closing their doors to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus between people, but the animals still need to be cared for. Many organizations, hoping to find foster homes for their remaining charges, are still processing requests and handing off animals while closed to the public.

Animal Care Centers of NYC — an open-intake shelter that received about 21,000 animals last year — put out a call for additional foster homes on March 13.

“We thought we’d get 50,” said Katy Hansen, director of marketing and communications. “We got 2,000 people who filled out the application.” The vast majority, Hansen says, are millennials who live with a roommate, have no kids, and are either working from home or suddenly out of a job.

“They most likely have a job that makes them work 14 hours a day — people don’t come to New York City to start a family,” she said. “They come to kick-start their careers. Now, they’re home, and they still have that super drive and super ambition. Now, they’re just pointing it toward helping animals.”

How to pet dogs during the coronavirus pandemic

The ASPCA says it’s seen an increase in people interested in fostering and adopting animals in recent weeks, and it’s managed to find temporary foster homes for most of its animals.

2DaRescue, a nonprofit in Mesa, Ariz., has experienced a 30 percent increase in adoptions and a 100 percent increase in fosters since the coronavirus crisis began. In San Francisco, where residents have been ordered to shelter in place since Tuesday, Muttville Senior Dog Rescue has adopted out 10 dogs already this week, and all the dogs found foster homes when it closed.

The Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., found a new home for 51 dogs, cats, puppies and kittens last weekend, up from a typical 33.

“We were all saying, ‘Oh my gosh, what a weekend,’ ” said Jessica Gercke, director of communications. Most of the applicants, she said, worked at schools in the area, which had been closed.

At the Humane Rescue Alliance in Washington, president and CEO Lisa LaFontaine said thoughts have turned to the center’s 90 partners that transport homeless dogs up north from crowded shelters in at least 15 southern states. Her group is helping some create foster programs, as northern shelters are less able to help.

Fostering also works well for those who can only help out during this uncertain period.

Maya Dangerfield knows her job as a video producer is usually too busy to accommodate a pet. So she and her husband decided to foster a dog while working from home in Astoria, Queens, instead. They picked up the poodle-mix named JWoww from Hearts & Bones Animal Rescue on Thursday evening and will be able to watch her as long as they have to stay home — at least another two-and-a-half weeks.

“I’m not getting sick of my husband yet, but it’s nice to have a little doggy. Just someone to hang out with,” Dangerfield said.

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It isn’t just dogs. People are bringing home all kinds of living creatures for companionship during an unprecedented time of social isolation, and they’re sharing photos on social media to provide a break from darker news.

Pets can also entertain younger family members at home — Kenneth Lynch and Lauren Wakefield bought a blue-and-silver betta fish for their two young children to help instill a sense of responsibility with feeding it and cleaning the tank. His name is Freddy.

This will help their son “occupy some of his time in a more healthy manner” while he‘s home from school, Lynch texted.

Some people are getting animals for more practical reasons.

“We’re kind of stuck at home, grocery stores are empty, and now we have these chickens that are laying eggs for us,” said Kelly Bordas, a physical therapist, stay-at-home parent, and new chicken owner in Oviedo, Fla.

Bordas and her husband purchased their first two chickens recently and named them Daisy Duck and Mabel, though they’re not always sure which is which. They live in a coop on the family’s three acres of land and have been a source of entertainment as much as food (they lay one small egg a day each). Their young daughter helps take care of the new arrivals.

“She loves them, she always goes out there and she wants to pet them. She wants them to be her best friends,” said Bordas.

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For Julianna Caplan, the coronavirus scare was the perfect time to finally give her 13-year-old twin daughters the dog they’d been begging for. The whole family is home from work and school, so on Sunday, they went to the Homeward Trails Adoption Center in Fairfax Station, Va. Within hours, the family adopted a 30-pound, 2-year-old blue heeler.

They named the dog Pepper Corona — for her gray-and-white patches of fur, and for her entrance into their lives during this moment in history.

“It feels good to adopt, and the kids are happy. It feels like the right thing to do now on a psychological level,” Caplan said. “I look at this dog and say to her, ‘I don’t know what your past has been, but your future is about to be awesome.‘ ”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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