EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Pets were essential in 2020 as people around the world learned to “sit” and “stay” — at home.

KTSM 9 News Investigates spoke with culture, business, and policy experts on the paradigm shifts occurring with pets and their parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), pet ownership comes with (human) health benefits that include reduced stress, lowered blood pressure, and alleviated symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

A 2018 study found pets play an important role in mitigating detrimental effects of social isolation and loneliness.

Karamo Brown, culture expert and star of Netflix’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” on pandemic pet parenting and his partnership with Petco to enhance animal wellness. 

“You know, 2020 was a challenging year for many of us but it also showed us how to better focus on ourselves, which is what I loved about 2020,” says Brown. “There was a silver lining. So now that we’re in a new year, people are focusing on their health and wellbeing but also their pets health and wellbeing because at the end of the day, it’s so important,” he continues. 

Being a pet parent is linked to healthy aging and improved quality of life that Brown says should be reciprocated.

“When it come to what you’re putting into your body and the activities you’re participating in, it’s equally important that you focus on that for your pet and one of the things for me — I’ve been a pet dad for almost 16 years now — is really making sure that I focus on my pet’s nutrition because that’s paramount to their health and wellness because it affects their skin, their teeth, their joints, their weight, and so much of the quality of their life,” he says. 

Although some shelters and breeders reported adoption surges in 2020 related to the COVID-19 pandemic – nationwide, shelter adoptions decreased overall.

The Pet Point Report, a yearly measure of U.S. pet owner demands for dogs and cats available for adoption, found that dog surrenders were down by about 20 percent last year but adoptions declined by about the same percentage.

People were not giving up their pets, but also not adopting.

Pet lovers have been strained by health and economic hardships but options are available for those interested in supporting local animals in need, like adopting, fostering, and donating. 

“One of the big things that you can do is make sure you get supplies and donate them to local shelters,” says Brown. “Any of those essential supplies, just go pick those up — like a leash, a bowl, a bed — and that helps somebody else who’s said ‘I want to adopt but I don’t know if I can get those things immediately.’ Now they have them, and it’s really a way to support other human beings while also supporting pets,” he adds. 

Claudia Ordaz Perez, Texas State Representative, used her time on El Paso City Council to push for policies that protect animals.

El Paso Animal Services transitioned to a no-kill shelter after reform spearheaded by Ordaz Perez was approved in 2016. Moreover, she helped create the only canine spray park in El Paso and passed legislation that requires dog groomer’s to adhere to regulations designed to keep pets safe. 

“It was really a team effort by the City and community,” she tells KTSM.

“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done because when you think about the city of El Paso and the laws that we pass, just a few miles away, you’re already in the county and that is under state purview,” she adds.

The County of El Paso does not have ordinance-making capabilities, which puts the burden on the state to create animal welfare policies.

“El Paso has really been in the lead for a lot of these animal welfare policies, and there’s a lot of gaps that we need to fill to address that at the state,” says Ordaz Perez. 

“I’m excited about the work that needs to be done to make sure that animal welfare laws are at the forefront.”

The Texas Humane Legislative Network (THLN) is a state-based organization that works to promote animal welfare laws in Texas. THLN is following a multitude of animal bills going through the legislative process during this session that include adoption of animals previously used for research, making the unlawful restraint of a dog a criminal offense, and improving shelters. 

In 2020, THLN endorsed Senator Cesar J. Blanco and Representative Joe Moody when they were candidates for the El Paso delegation of the Texas legislature.

While members of the Texas legislature work to pass animal welfare policies, small businesses and corporate businesses are keeping pace with pet wellness needs. 

Kat Donatello, founder and owner of Austin and Kat, an organic pet wellness company that specializes in CBD products, created the company based on the physical and emotional needs of her pets.

“The way people look at their pets now, versus 10 or 15 years ago is dramatically different. Where they live, where they choose to live, the cars they buy, where they go on vacation (when they can go on vacation), sometimes really revolve around their pet and having their pet be a part of that experience and part of their life, so making a product that was always grounded in wholesome ingredients, the very best ingredients, and really the best CBD, and making really good products have always been at the forefront for Austin and Kat,” she says.

The company took a step back at the beginning of the pandemic to reassess the needs of pets once their (and their human’s) lifestyles changed.

“Pet was always deemed essential so the stores were open but the approach that retailers were able to have with their customers was much different. So we needed to be able to communicate with our customers some of the things that they might be facing having all that time alone with their pets and how that would affect their pet,” says Donatello.

The company decided to relaunch its most popular products.

“We’ve optimized the ingredients in it, so we’ve added potent curcumin extract, which is basically turmeric. But it’s super potent and really helps to reduce inflammation. And we’ve really improved on the ingredients that we’ve been using since 2014. My recipe really hadn’t changed at all. Really just improving ingredients. We’ve changed CBD suppliers,” says Donatello.

Austin and Kat source their CBD from Treehouse Hemp, the very first hemp supplier approved by the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC), which advises pet companies similar to the way the FDA does in products for human consumption.

“So when they approve something or when you now become a NASC-approved company, it really just elevates who you are. So we are also NASC-certified. So that quality of hemp CBD that we’re using now is amazing,” says Donatello.

The products contain more than 60 cannabinoids in addition to CBD. 

“You want that whole, full plant, experience so you get what’s called the ‘entourage effect’ so full body experience. And then it also is really high in terpenes, and terpenes also are very beneficial. So you’ve got not just CBD, but you’ve got this elevated, really relaxing, CBD in the products now, and I’m super excited,” says Donatello.

The reimagined products have been approved by her pets. 

“I’ve noticed a difference in my pets now that we’re using this CBD supply — so that’s really good news,” adds Donatello. 

Brown partnered with Petco to promote the company’s at-home friendly ways to make sure pets are well taken care of. 

“They have a very amazing curated food selection and treat selection that has no artificial flavors. And it’s really amazing because it really allows you to know what you’re giving to your pet,” says Brown. “They also have a program called Vital Care, which is a paid plan provided to pet parents to really ensure that there’s a convenient and affordable way to maintain their pet’s both health and wellness.”

In El Paso, small businesses are working to create and enhance pet wellness locally. 

The Double Dog Dare Bakery specializes in dog cakes and “pup”cakes for special occasions, and also offer services like grooming and taking your pet to vet appointments. 

Over the holidays the company created special meals for dogs and then donated the surplus and other essential supplies to Sunland Park Animal Control.

Animal advocates are encouraging people to foster and adopt from local shelters when possible, or donate if they can. 

But what if a puppy isn’t your speed? Teach an old dog new tricks. 

“I like to encourage people to adopt senior pets because my old guy is 15 years old. And I think that as you’re looking at puppies, also look at the pets that you want to foster or adopt that have been around for awhile — they’re seasoned! — and you also want to think about putting a little seasoning in your life!” says Brown.

Many have felt the sting of isolation during the pandemic that dogs help to balm while we adjust to the “new normal.” 

Pets are able to foster connections between humans that have nothing to do with politics or the pandemic. 

“One thing I do know is when I’m at the dog park and someone comes up to me, I’m not thinking about any choice they made. Right in that moment we connect with the love of an animal. And I think sometimes that allows us to have a gateway for conversations that are loving,” says Brown. 

More than ever, humans are grateful to have man’s best friend at our sides. 

“That’s the beauty of pets,” says Brown. “They give you an opportunity to learn more about yourself and more about others while you’re supporting and loving them.”