By Teri Saylor
After the life-changing loss of her teenage son in an auto accident 15 years ago, Vanessa Davis made a major professional shift, trading her longtime career as an interior designer for a new occupation where she is surrounded by furry clients every day—a job that brings her great joy and comfort.
Like many animal tales, it all started with a small puppy.
“After losing my son, I was devastated,” she said. “Then, in May 2008, I met a cute little Golden Retriever puppy and it was love at first sight. Almost instantly he filled the void in my heart and in my life.”
Like a sixth sense, the puppy seemed to know when Davis was blue or stressed, and comforted her by placing his paw on her knee or nosing her hand. She named him “Taylor,” and he became her constant companion.
When Taylor was 18 months old, he began showing signs of allergies, Davis said. She spent thousands of dollars in vet bills and medications, conducted research and participated in many seminars in her efforts to help him.
“I realized that by helping Taylor, I could also help other animals, and I wanted to share my knowledge with other pet owners,” she said.
The desire to help other pets became a calling, and in 2012, the longtime entrepreneur launched Dirty Dogs Spa in Wake Forest as a do-it-yourself grooming salon and boutique. Three months after opening the spa, she hired a professional groomer. Today, the business has doubled in size, employs six groomers and features a grooming school. The spa has expanded beyond dogs, and serves a variety of pets, including cats, guinea pigs and farm animals. She has since opened ZoomyDogs, a community center for dogs and their people in Durham.
Recently, Davis added a second dog to her family, Brady, a Golden Retriever who has become Taylor’s brother and best canine friend. These days, being surrounded by pets has become a way of life and has helped her through the hard days.
“The unconditional love that pets offer can be extraordinarily soothing,” Davis said.
While many people turn to furry family members to provide comfort and companionship, the COVID-19 pandemic has created isolating circumstances for those who are unable to go to their workplaces, socialize with friends, or even spend time with family members outside their immediate households. For individuals suffering from depression or trauma, the pandemic feels like piling on, and a loving pet can fill the empty spaces and sooth the hurts.
At the Cape Fear Chapter of Pets for Vets in Wilmington, Executive Director Sean Quigley witnesses the calming power of therapy dogs every time his nonprofit perfectly matches a former shelter dog with a veteran suffering from the traumas of war.
Quigley recalls the day he and his organization paved the way to a better life for two traumatized individuals. One of them was a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who had not had a good night’s sleep since he was discharged after a 20-year career that included multiple deployments and the honor of being awarded the Purple Heart.
The other was a female Labrador Retriever that had been rescued from a hurricane.
“The dog was rescued and sent to an animal shelter,” Quigley said. “She didn’t have a microchip or tags, and her owners could not be located.”
Quigley put the dog through the extensive Pets for Vets program, which includes training, socialization and vetting to ensure she would be a good fit for the veteran who needed her. It was a perfect match.
“The first night after the dog moved in, the veteran enjoyed his first full night of sleep in years,” Quigley said. “Today, they are constant companions and enjoy hiking, fishing and spending quality time together.”
One might think the dog saved the veteran, but often the saving works both ways. After Pets for Vets adopted her, Quigley learned she had been scheduled to be euthanized. “In a way, they saved each other,” he said.
Usually, the act of rescuing pets is as comforting as adopting them, according to Allison Murphy, director of Cause for Paws of North Carolina, a pet rescue organization based in Raleigh. A life-long animal lover, Murphy has three dogs and two cats. She also serves as a foster parent.
“I find solace in my pets,” she said. “They provide undivided devotion and unconditional love and there’s really nothing like that.”
Dogs contribute to good physical health, too. Having a dog that needs regular exercise has the power of pulling us away from our Zoom meetings and cramped home offices and into the fresh air, Murphy said.
“Especially in such isolating times, it’s something to do outside our typical routine,” said Murphy. “So many people are really struggling with being anxious and scared, and having a pet in the home is a rewarding experience in so many ways.”
Peg Morrison turns to her beagle, Roxie, to help soothe her anxiety and quiet her negative self-talk. Morrison, who is director of programs at the North Carolina Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, says Roxie has the power to quell her harsh inner critic and helps her love herself more.
“There is a lot of evidence that animals have a profound impact on our mental health and well-being,” she said. “Sometimes people struggle with self-soothing during troubled times, and pets can provide a calming influence.”
Morrison has led guided support groups for people and has heard many stories of how pets lift their people up and literally save lives by giving them a reason to live. “I have counseled people who have avoided committing suicide because they did not want to leave their pets,” she said.
While furry family members provide comfort, unconditional love, and in some cases, lifesaving emotional support, adopting them is a big step. Fostering is a good way to help homeless pets and determine if pet parenthood is the right step, rescue experts say.
Janna Joyner of Raleigh, who has four dogs of her own, has fostered more than 50 dogs over the past five years. “Fostering is great,” she said. “You can enjoy the companionship of a dog without the financial constraints, and it is emotionally rewarding.”
Today, Joyner has taken her love of dogs to a new level—helping other people. After a close friend and the dog he adopted from the Wake County Animal Center became a certified therapy team, Joyner made up her mind to form a service team, too. But it took time to find the right animal.
“I learned that just because your dog gives you unconditional love, it doesn’t mean he loves other people,” Joyner said. “I wanted to be a therapy team with a dog for a long time, but I never had a dog with the right temperament.”
Two years ago, she adopted Bane from German Shepherd Rescue and Adoptions and realized right away that he was born to be a therapy dog. He is calm and patient, and he loves people.
While the pandemic derailed the pair’s certification journey, last September, they finally became certified through the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen program and Canines for Therapy, a branch of Canines for Service of Wilmington.
Joyner is seeking opportunities to serve. “Bane loves kids, and I want to give back to our veterans, so I think I’d like to take him to facilities that care for children and possibly the VA Hospital in Durham,” she said.
People seeking a new best friend often turn to dogs as their pet of choice, but they may also have room in their hearts for other species. For Hannah Allison, it’s all about cats. “I wouldn’t call myself a ‘cat lady,’ but I definitely have a soft spot for cats,” she said.
Allison, communication coordinator for Second Chance Pet Adoptions of Raleigh, still has Bobby, her childhood cat. She admits that she copes with anxiety and he helps to keep her calm. “He will come and lie on my chest and purr, and gives me so much comfort and support,” she said. She returns the love by treating him like a baby. “I have spoiled the living daylights out of him,” she said.
Caring for pets and spoiling them adds to the pleasure and responsibility of having them as part of your household, according to Davis. “Everyone needs a purpose, and having an animal to take care of provides a very rewarding experience,” she said.
Rescue organizations also provide support and services for volunteers who foster their animals and those who adopt.
“For fosters, we cover everything—vet bills, monthly flea and tick prevention, as well as heartworm preventative,” Murphy said. “For adopters, we spay, neuter, provide microchips and all their first vaccines.”
For all the good vibes and love pets bring to their families, remember the responsibility that comes along with having loving pets.
Peak City Animal Hospital is a small, intimate facility that offers full-service health care, including treating a wide variety of conditions, providing wellness care, dental services and even holistic therapies, such as aromatherapy and chiropractic care.
Owner Cindy Johnson, D.V.M., and assistant Nikki Cole, say their hospital covers “the 3 Cs: Care, Compassion and Community,” with a commitment to providing top notch service to the clients and their pets.
“Owning a pet is a big responsibility and time commitment,” Johnson said. “Just like us, they need exercise, medical care, love and affection.”
She recommends that prospective pet owners keep only the type and number of pets for which they can provide appropriate food, water, shelter, health care and companionship. It’s also important to make a lifelong commitment to their well-being. What they give back is worth the money, time and effort.
“Pets are amazing creatures and provide so much love in our lives,” she said.
From dogs and cats to rabbits, reptiles, birds and even small farm animals, the veterinarians at Magnolia Animal Hospital are equipped to care for a variety of species.
The facility is poised to perform a range of regular services, such as spaying and neutering, microchipping, surgeries and can handle emergencies. Magnolia also offers laser therapy, which can be used to treat a variety of ailments affecting your pet.
If work or vacation travel means leaving pets behind, Magnolia Animal Hospital also offers boarding options, with separate housing facilities for dogs and cats.
This level of care is important to both pets and their families, but it comes with a price tag. “Don’t adopt a pet without considering and planning for everything that could come up, including regular veterinary care, which would impact your budget,” Allison said. She offered some advice for anyone who is thinking about introducing a new cat or dog into their household.
Consider the age range for your new pet. Rescues often promote adopting older animals because they likely have had basic training and are socialized with humans and other animals. Consider any restrictions in your housing complex or neighborhood.
Ask yourself questions including: Are neighborhood residents limited to a certain number of pets? Are there size or breed limitations? Do you have children who would consider the pet as a playmate? Does your lifestyle accommodate an energetic animal, or do you want a more sedate breed? Do you travel for work or adventure? Does your workplace frequently transfer you to new locations?
It’s important to weigh all the factors, because most pets live for 14-16 years, and sometimes even longer. Allison encourages families to be willing to keep their pets for the long haul. “We want the pets we adopt out to be in one loving home for the rest of their lives, so adopting is definitely a big decision,” she added.
But it is a decision that pays off in many ways. For Davis, the mother who lost her son, a young puppy brought light back into her life, and helped her launch a new career that she loves. “An animal in your life will help ease your suffering,” said Davis. “Though pets have a tendency to show love and affection all the time, they show a little extra when you need it the most.”
Teri Saylor is a freelance writer in Raleigh, North Carolina. She recently published her first children’s book, “The Adventures of Puddin and the Fruit Bat” with fine art photographer Shannon Johnstone.