Keys will be required to enter the Forest Park dog park beginning May 1. | File photo

If it seems you’re seeing more dogs walking their owners in Forest Park lately, you’re not alone.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, dog adoptions in the area surged. In fact, Chicago Animal Care and Control experienced a “first” early on in the pandemic: In one day, every single animal on the floor was adopted.

Although social distancing has made adopting more difficult in some ways, and though some families had to surrender pets, unable to meet their financial needs, pet ownership overall has been on the rise, and the pet industry is booming.

Jenny Gonzalez-Olson, who owns the Pet Emporium on Madison Street, offers services such as grooming, boarding, daycare and dog walking. She suggested several explanations for the increase in dog ownership.

One possibility is that fewer people are having children, or are having children later, and “a man’s best friend is second best.” 

A bigger motivation for owning a dog, she said, is companionship. During the pandemic, with people stuck at home and socially isolating, having an at-home friend, even a non-human one, can prevent loneliness

“Our dogs are our family,” said Pem Hessing, who is a client of Pet Emporium and the mother of two elementary school-age children.  She refers to her dogs as her two additional “furever” babies.

Christina Giannelli also takes her dog to Pet Emporium for grooming. 

“Ozzy is an 8.5-year-old Havanese and a lovable ball of fur,” Giannelli said. “I got him after my grandma, who I was a caregiver for, passed away, and he definitely helped fill a hole in my heart. Having his companionship over the past year — when I have barely been able to see friends or family — has meant the world to me. Many days he was the only creature I talked to —even if he didn’t talk back!”

Mary Jo M’Lady, owner of Furry Angels Petcare on Franklin Street, added that the comfort and companionship a dog brings to its owner is even more important to her elderly clients “because I think they fight loneliness more than younger folk.”

“Especially now with COVID,” Gonzalez-Olson added, “I think people are finding out what loneliness is. When you are stuck at home, the silence can be very deafening and can lead to depression. Therefore, people are getting pets for companionship, and their need is usually met with a furry friend. There is nothing like doggy kisses and happy tail wags to brighten your day.”

“Many of my clients,” said M’Lady, “have expressed that they would be way more depressed if they had been without their dogs, and I know it’s also been good for my dog owners because, with many of them being home now, they are walking their own dogs and getting exercise that they don’t normally get. And because many of us have been working at home, it’s easier to have a dog or even get a companion for the one you have.” 

“The unconditional love of a dog,” Giannelli declared, “is one of the greatest gifts you can experience. Humans completely do not deserve them!”

Dr. Lori Lipkin, a podiatrist with an office on Madison Street, has a 2-year-old shitzu-bichon fries mix named Coco. 

“I started bringing her to the office two days after I got her,” Lipkin said, “because I realized just how much separation anxiety she had. So bringing her was more therapy for the puppy than for the patients.

“But now Coco greets patients at the door, follows them into the office and curls up in their laps.”

The website SPOTS claims that conclusions derived from scientific and longitudinal studies reveal that pet ownership does correlate with reduced blood pressure. Pet owners, they report, also tend to have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and exercise more as they walk their dogs.

“I cannot scientifically prove it,” Lipkin said, “but several patients seem to have lower blood pressure when they are holding her.”