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With coronavirus, four-legged friends reduce isolation of social distancing

Tampa Bay shelters hope calls to stay home during the pandemic will boost pet adoptions and fostering.
Naila Alan, 37, of Tampa sits with her Aussiedoodle Savannah at the end of a pier at Davis Islands Wednesday, March 18, 2020 in Tampa. Alan was supposed to take a 12 day vacation to Turkey Wednesday but had to cancel due to the coronavirus pandemic. She now plans to stay home. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

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TAMPA — The first six months of Ginger’s life have been anything but routine.

When a young couple fell in love with the fluffy brown Goldendoodle in December, they were told she was a “miniature” breed, likely to grow to be about 35 pounds. But four months later, the energetic puppy already tips the scales at about 30 pounds — and growing.

Ginger presides over every corner of the tiny one-bedroom apartment she shares with Alyssa Broderick and Bret Mansfield. And for most of their brief life together, Ginger has spent her days lounging in her owners’ laps while they type away on laptops — unaware the daily routine she’s come to know is the exception to the rule.

If not for the global coronavirus outbreak forcing most of the country’s workforce to log in from home, Alyssa Broderick would be in her dad’s Tampa office, working on marketing projects for his financial research firm. Bret Mansfield would be at Ybor eatery The Bricks, either in the kitchen or as a shift manager.

But Tuesday, after days of empty tables and lagging takeout sales, the restaurant decided to close its doors until the threat of COVID-19 goes away.

“In a way, I think it’s helping us because with everything going on it’s been so stressful and, like, impossible not to think about,” Broderick said. “But when Ginger’s here, she doesn’t let you think about anything else.”

In times of extreme isolation, anxiety and uncertainty about the future, being cooped up with a pet can be a sanity-saving distraction, researchers say.

Sarah DeYoung is a faculty member at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center. In communities where disasters — such as hurricanes or wildfires — occurred, her data suggests the bonds between pets and their owners is often as strong as the bonds humans form with family members.

“Pets can be a source of comfort, coping and resilience in crisis scenarios,” DeYoung said. “When people bond over animals — even virtually — human social networks can become more robust. Caring for pets can provide a sense of meaning and purpose, which is important in times of uncertainty.”

That need for routine and purpose becomes even more crucial during times of isolation, dog trainer Erin Askeland said. As the coronavirus affects people’s daily lives, they are reporting increased feelings of loneliness and isolation.

“It’s difficult for humans to be completely isolated, and connecting with a living, breathing being that can show affection back can help,” Askeland said.

While the current pandemic has made meetups with bowling teams or blind dates a risky endeavor, the North American Veterinary Community, a non-profit professional development organization for veterinarians, said pets have not yet been shown to transmit the virus.

Related: RELATED: Can your pet get coronavirus? We asked experts.

“Viruses are usually unique to each species and it is unusual for a virus to jump between species. It’s very unlikely that household pets like dogs or cats will transmit this coronavirus to people, and there is no evidence at this point that dogs or cats will become ill from this disease,” said Dr. Dana Varble, the organization’s Chief Veterinary Officer. “There is no cause for alarm, but it is smart to skip the face kisses for now and wash your hands and face regularly after being with pets."

For pet shelters and adoption facilities, the hope is that the calls to stay home in the coming weeks could connect more animals with new homes. The threat of infection makes it a difficult undertaking.

“It’s not like Amazon, where you can just go online and get a pet,” said Scott Trebatoski, director of Hillsborough County Pet Resources. “We’re trying to normalize the life of our pets during this situation and trying our best to get animals into homes permanently, or at least foster homes.”

Trebatoski said the shelters have still managed to send pets to new homes, despite closures and limited working hours. Hillsborough County’s facilities started the week at 98 percent capacity; by Friday the facilities were about 92 percent full, he said.

Trebatoski and others encourage those looking for a pet to take advantage of the “remote adoption” process available through the county website. Potential owners can browse the shelter inventory online, then call to set up a one-on-one meeting with a staff member to either pick up the animal or have it delivered to their homes.

Pet Resources is also soliciting donations of dog and cat food in 15-pound bags. Staff plan to disinfect the bags and deliver the food to the homes of elderly pet owners who would be at risk by shopping at the store.

For those still on the fence about taking in a furry family member, fostering a pet not only provides the same boost to mental health, but would also help take the pressure off animal shelters and rescue groups struggling to provide for their animals.

Many groups, like Friends of Strays Animal Shelter in St. Petersburg, have waived adoption fees in hopes of sending animals to good homes before closing their doors. Friends of Strays plans to temporarily close on Monday, spokeswoman Holly Clare said.

"It’s life or death for other cats and dogs if we don’t get them adopted,” Clare said.

Times staff writers Gabrielle Calise and Divya Kumar contributed to this report.

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