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Softening the Virus’s Bite with Cuteness Overload

April 24, 2020

Millions of pet owners breathed a collective sigh of relief in early March when Hong Kong researchers announced that dogs and cats can’t transmit the coronavirus to humans. For animal lovers quarantined at home and social-distancing from humans, their furry family members provide emotional solace as well as entertainment and comic relief.

Few things are as comforting as a picture of a cute dog — except, of course, lots of pictures of cute dogs. Research has shown that gazing into your dog’s eyes elevates levels of the bonding hormone oxytocin for both of you, just as gazing into your child’s eyes does. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic raging, people are turning to online pet groups to reproduce that cuddly feeling, over and over.

Focusing on our pets allows us to return to a simpler time, when the activities of daily living didn’t pose enormous risk, and keeps our minds off our own plight, says Randy Faerber, a psychoanalyst in New York City and alumna of Bard College. “Animals don’t know what’s going on,” Faerber says. “They’re just being animals. If you’re with that animal, you can identify with that animal. It’s another way to feel that everything’s okay.”

That need for normalcy is on display on the four-year-old site Hudson Valley Pets in Pictures, whose 5,500-odd members (up 200 in the past month alone) have been cranking out as many as 130 posts on some days during the pandemic.

The group’s preoccupation during this time has been the convalescence from herniated disc surgery of a particularly impish-looking wire-haired terrier mix named Tyson. Every post from Tyson’s “dad,” Chris Hawks, a Millbrook farmer, generates hundreds of likes and comments: compliments on Tyson’s progress, encouragement, and heart emojis.

A recent picture of Tyson sitting on a mound of hay surrounded by cows with the heading “helping dad feed the girls” racked up more than 300 likes and 55 comments, including, “He looks like he’s back to his old critter chasing self” from Verne Carter of Lake Peekskill.

Even the most mundane Tyson posts—“Peed…now back to the house for a treat or two” with a video of Tyson slowly and unsteadily navigating a brick walkway after his surgery—are cause for celebration (173 likes, many of them from women who seem as enamored of the farmer as they are of the dog).

“I think it’s lifting spirits a little bit from what’s going on,” Hawks says. “There seem to be a lot more people joining in the last couple of weeks. I get a lot of people making remarks that the best way to start the day off is with a smile from Tyson.”

The much larger Cool Dog Group, founded in New Zealand in 2012, now has about 784,000 members—so many, that it has capped membership in an effort to improve quality control.

“The general purpose of the group is to recreate that feeling you got as a kid when a dog turned up at school,” says a Cool Dog Group administrator who wanted to remain anonymous. “Excitement, joy—everyone remembers a day like that. It’s the talk of the school for days.”

Although Cool Dog has members all over the world, most are in New Zealand and Australia, which is facing the double whammy of raging bush fires followed by the coronavirus. “Our group is a place to escape things that might seem scary or stressful that appear elsewhere on social media,” the administrator says.

 

The site specifically asks members not to post about the coronavirus and sternly warns, “DO NOT WASTE PPE BY PUTTING IT ON YOUR DOG FOR THE SAKE OF LIKES ON THE INTERNET. This is an INCREDIBLY SELFISH thing to do and we will not hesitate to ban you from the group permanently if you attempt to post pictures or videos of your dog in PPE here.”

But there are no limits on adorable puppy videos, like the one of nine-week-old Labrador-golden retriever mix Winnie quizzically pawing a blueberry, which elicited about 100 gleeful comments. “What dis?? Toy? Food? Enemy?” a member posted. Other members rhapsodized about the puppy’s “little nose scrunch” and even her paws. Her owner responded, “I knowwwww. Her paws are my favorite thing in the world.”

A Cool Dog post by Sean McVey of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, with the heading “he’s a cancer survivor” and a picture of a dog missing his left front leg garnered nearly 4,300 likes along with comments proclaiming the dog a “miracle” and a “champion.”

“They’re really projecting onto the animal all their wishes for themselves,” Faerber says. “We want a miracle. We want a champion. We want to be saved. If we can fix this dog, if we can fix this situation, we can be fixed.”

The unconditional love dogs offer, which is even more important during times of stress and isolation, is another compelling factor. A 14-month-old group, I Love Dogs Forever, added 1,271 new members in the first week of April to its total of about 117,000. The six-month-old I Love Dogs group recently added 70 new members in just 24 hours, bringing its total to nearly 5,300. “My dog is the only person who consistently loves me all the time,” posted new I Love Dogs member John Giovanni of Brooklyn, along with a pic of his Havanese, Jasper.

Hudson Valley Pets member Chris Gerhardt of Beacon has been posting several updates a day on her schipperke, Lulu, whose tendency to rouse her mom early for her morning walk and seek out the sunniest spot on the couch amuse her many followers. “This site brings me so much joy,” Gerhardt says. “It’s a connection to the world because I feel like we’re all cut off, and it’s a little bit of normalcy. I know these people are still there and waiting to see Lulu.”

The site is also a great place to see pictures of a bearded dragon named Rocky perched on the steering wheel of his mom’s car; an unusually photogenic ferret, Dave, pausing for a furry close-up; and Paco the parrot stealing pizza from his family’s dining-room table.

Hudson Valley Pets allows members to mention the pandemic, and many note that the ability to spend time with their pets makes quarantine tolerable. “Sheltering in place with my Shelty,” Robert Jones wrote. “Not minding quarantine so much,” posted Paco’s mom, Teri Trotta of Wappingers Falls, above a pic of the parrot perched on her shoulder.

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