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Project Best Life | The Healing Benefit of Pets

This series is sponsored by Project Best Life. Buffalo Rising and Project Best Life have teamed up to produce a series on wellness inspiration and advice to direct readers to the people, places, and experiences in Buffalo and beyond that will help them fulfill their health, nutrition, and wellness goals. For more information on how you can live your best life, subscribe to the Project Best Life newsletter. 

Ask any animal lover to describe their companion, and they’ll likely tell you that the word ‘pet’ simply isn’t enough. The special relationships we cultivate with our furry friends are bonds like that of best friends, of family. Our pets have a unique ability to bolster our wellness that is impossible to replicate.

Having a pet, particularly one that needs regular exercise, can boost our physical wellness because we have to ensure they get out and about. There’s nothing like returning home to a dog that’s eagerly waiting for its afternoon walk to keep you consistent with getting your own steps in daily. In short, keeping them healthy keeps us healthy.

“Over the years, we’ve learned so much more about what pets are capable of doing when it comes to providing hope, or providing healing benefits to people,” said Gina Lattucca, Chief Communications Officer at the SPCA Serving Erie County.

It has long been understood that pet ownership can lead to reduced heart rates and reduced blood pressure. People have a newfound sense of well being, they have a reason to get up and get out, because they have to bring the animal out for a walk.

Sarah DeMerle, dog trainer and owner of 716 Dog Pack, witnesses the wellness impacts of animals firsthand in her work running a group dog walking service. DeMerle has been a dog lover since her youth, and she sees her work as a way to give back to the animals that provided her with such a unique sense of security and connection when she was growing up.

“They have done studies that any animal will actually connect with your heart rate,” DeMerle said. “They calm us down. Some people they energize. I feel like they help balance us to where we need to be.”

Walking a group of 8 to 10 dogs simultaneously is no small feat, and learning that process with the dogs in her pack helped DeMerle in her personal growth. “There are dogs who help us become more patient, that help develop our assertiveness or our calm energy,” she said. “They push us to be the people that we need to be, to exist in society in a healthy way. You can take it from a very small perspective that it feels great for someone to pet a dog, but you could go as far as to say a connection with them will develop your character.”

Many of us turned to our pets as a source of comfort within the uncertainty and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some were concerned that adopting a pet during COVID when owners were working from home might be unfair to that animal, given that they would eventually go back to work.

“I think that animals have really benefited from having their humans home this much. It will be a transition once things open up to our companion animals, going back to a more regular schedule,” said John Higgins, Co-Owner, Elmwood Pet Supplies, adding “But this has been a gravy train for dogs and cats. They are not looking for this to end any time soon.” Elmwood Pet Supplies was established around 1947, and is one of the oldest, continuously operating, pet shops in U.S.

Current owners and brothers, John and Tom Higgins bought Elmwood Pet Supplies in 1986. Over the years they have made it WNY’s premier one-stop shop for pet owners.

“In normal times having a dog or a cat is obviously great company and great comfort, but during a pandemic, I think people have really come to realize how incredibly helpful just having the companionship, the routine that they impart, you know, dogs compel you to go out three times a day, whether you feel like it or not. Cats are always there with you, binge watching, or reading, or doing whatever you are doing. Cats are usually not very far behind.”

The SPCA Serving Erie County repeatedly surveyed their followers about the idea of keeping pet adoptions open during the pandemic. “Each time I received more than 100 responses from people who acquired pets during the pandemic, talking about how it lowered their stress during this tumultuous time, how they watched the children who were at home bond with this new best friend, and what it did to heal the household,” Lattucca said. “There were people who posted on our Facebook page about problems in the family that they had, and all of a sudden this animal came and ameliorated the issues because now their child had something else to focus on.”

Lattucca points out that it is critical to do a self assessment as a potential owner before adopting a pet, to make sure you’re offering the best situation for both the animal and your or your family. She also suggests doing your research on different breeds and which animal might be happiest in your home based on its needs and traits. That assessment should take into consideration changes in the household and work schedules as COVID-19 restrictions lift.

“The hardest part, I believe, is taking a good, honest look at your lifestyle, and deciding what kind of pet would fit best into that lifestyle. And what would lead to the greatest amount of success,” she said. “We encourage people to do some of their homework on their own before they ever come to the SPCA or any animal facility, or before they ever visit a breeder. Enlist the help of a professional to try to determine what animal might fit best into your lifestyle. We have adoption counselors and we have private rooms where you can talk to them.”

For those who want to connect with animals, but are not necessarily looking to become pet owners, the SPCA Serving Erie County offers multiple programs that are mutually beneficial to the wellness of human participants and that of the shelter animals.

One example is their “Tale for Two” program, which is designed to help children gain literacy skills while helping animals at the shelter to relax and acclimate to their surroundings. Youth will come to the shelter and set up outside one of the kennels and read out loud to the animal inside. This program is unique in its ability to foster improvements in the mental and emotional wellness of both the children and the pets.

“We have some kids who are just learning to read, or maybe they should be a little further ahead with their literacy skills or their reading aloud skills, but for whatever reason, they’re not there yet. They’re used to trying to read out loud and practice these skills in a very judgmental environment, which could be a school environment where maybe they’re being judged by the other students,” Lattucca said.

You take this child and put them in front of a dog or a cat who’s starting to fall asleep, or we have one little girl who comes in and the first animal she wants to read to is Rocky, our turtle. And all of a sudden you see these kids have this newfound desire to really develop this reading skill, which in turn is developing their self esteem.

Meanwhile, the program also helps newly arrived animals cope with some of the stress of being in a shelter, while keeping them in a safe, contained environment. “Now you have a child sitting on the animal’s level, softly reading to that animal,” Lattucca said. “There is no fear on the animal’s part because there’s no threat – the children aren’t actually touching them. So if it’s a dog who’s petrified, the dog might want to say in the back of the kennel while the child is reading. But little by little, you start watching that dog relax and come closer, and all of a sudden that dog is soliciting attention from the child who is also benefiting from reading to them. It’s such a beautiful program to witness because you’re seeing the mutual benefits of the child thriving, and you’re seeing the animal thriving because of this program.”

The SPCA Serving Erie County also offers a Paws for Patriots program, which invites veterans and active duty servicemembers to assist with training animals at the shelter. The patriots provide the stimulation and enrichment that enhances the wellness of the pets, and in turn, working with the animals can have a therapeutic effect on the military members, many of whom are working through their own trauma.

“We had a serviceman who was suffering from PTSD, and he came in and was working with one of our dogs,” Lattucca said. “In the end, he ended up adopting that dog. A couple months after the adoption, I bumped into him in the hallway, and I asked how it was going. He had been home from the service for about four years. He was very hyper vigilant of every time there was a noise during the night, he was up and out of bed and usually downstairs before he even recognized what was happening, ready to go into full defense mode at the door before he was even fully awake. And once he brought that dog into the home, he was sleeping through the night. The connection and the bond that had already developed between that serviceman and that dog, it was actually kind of miraculous to witness.”

Lattucca also notes that more recent studies have helped organizations like the SPCA learn more about the positive effects that animals can have on people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. While we often hear of service animals that are trained to help with illnesses, the reality is that those highly trained animals can be expensive to acquire. Yet, connecting with animals through the SPCA and its programs can still provide immense benefits to those suffering from some of these conditions. They even had a client adopt a dog who, after building a bond with its owner, learned to communicate with her when she was about to have an epileptic seizure – without ever having had any training to do so.

The SPCA Serving Erie County also has a Paws for Love pet therapy program with over 400 volunteers who help provide therapy visits with cats, dogs, and even a cockatoo. The program began with visiting patients in hospitals and residents in assisted living facilities, but once they started learning more about the benefits of the animals in the human healing process, they expanded. Now the pets visit frontline hospital workers on their lunch breaks and grieving families at funerals and wakes.

“Even if the people there aren’t able to benefit from having an animal to go home to when they’re in these situations, they’re benefiting from the presence of therapy animals who very often are benefiting just as much from the attention, but who just want to be interacted with in some way,” Lattucca said. “It does wonders for your emotional well being and your self esteem.”

For more tips and inspiration to help live a healthy, happy and balanced life to the fullest, subscribe to the Project Best Life newsletter.

SPCA Serving Erie County

For those looking to adopt a pet from the SPCA Serving Erie County or get involved with any of their programs to interact with shelter animals, visit

716 Dog Pack

Dog owners who are interested in the benefits of pack walking for their pup can connect with Sarah DeMerle via 716 Dog Pack at

Elmwood Pet Supplies

Elmwood Pet Supplies sells a large variety of pet toys, pet supplies, beds, leashes, collars, food and everything you need to keep your furry friends happy and healthy. Their seasoned and knowledgeable staff is happy to offer recommendations to new and veteran pet owners on pet diet, toys, tools, and equipment. For the convenience of their human customers, they have an on-site self-service dog wash, parking in the back, and now offer local delivery. Check out their famous Buffalo Collars and leashes, or to see the wide-variety of products they offer,


In tough times, our efforts to maintain fitness, healthy nutrition, and personal wellness can fall by the wayside as we direct all our energy into navigating our individual storm. Yet, in the face of what’s happening in the world around us, it is essential to make space for self-care and experiences that fortify our physical and mental wellbeing.

Check out Project Best Life’s personal assessment tool. Get personalized health insights and a cancer screening checklist by completing this health assessment. This questionnaire will only take you around 10-15 minutes to complete. 


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Written by Sarah Maurer
Hosted by Peter Soscia, Project Best Life
Photography and Editing by Devin Chavanne
Produced by Jessica Marinelli

Written by Sarah Maurer

Sarah Maurer

I moved to Buffalo to attend Canisius College in 2007 and began writing for Buffalo Rising as a journalism intern in 2010. Working with Newell and meeting numerous entrepreneurs, activists and everyday folks who were working to make their city better made a huge impact on my decision to stay here. After witnessing all the positive development and grassroots initiatives happening in neighborhoods throughout the city, I was inspired to pursue a term of service in AmeriCorps and a career in Buffalo's non-profit sector. I currently work in the housing department at the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center of WNY and am excited to be a part of their ongoing efforts to revitalize the Broadway Fillmore neighborhood. I also volunteer as the project coordinator for Artfarms Buffalo. I continue to write for Buffalo Rising because I love having the opportunity to stay connected to those working toward positive changes for the Queen City.

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