These Nonprofits Connect People and Pets to Improve the Wellbeing of Everyone Involved

It's no secret that being around animals is a major well-being booster. These nonprofits are tapping into this feel-good effect to improve the lives of humans in need – and vice versa.

Cheerful young woman playing with dog on beach against sky
Photo: Astrakan Images/Getty

Anyone who's been lucky enough to have a pet can attest to the immediate feel-good effect they have on mental health (seriously, how can cuddling with a warm, fuzzy animal not perk you up?). And science even backs this up: A study published in Science revealed that just by looking into your pet's eyes, you get a hit of oxytocin and prolactin, hormones that leave you feeling majorly blissed out.

What's more, research shows interacting with pets can reduce blood pressure and levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), Deborah Linder, a veterinary nutritionist and a co-director of the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction, previously told Shape. By providing a nonjudgmental form of social support, pets may buffer the impact of stressful events, added Sandra Barker, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and director at the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Medicine. (

And because of this health- and happiness-promoting bond between animals and humans, some groups are using it to improve the lives of those in need. Here, meet three groups on a mission to help pets and people — and how they're coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Creature Comfort

“Our animals love helping people,” says Mary Beth Cooney, the executive director of Creature Comfort, a nonprofit pet-therapy group based in Madison, New Jersey, that works with children, hospital patients, older adults, and those battling mental health issues to boost their mood, reduce anxiety, promote confidence, and heal.

The organization, which started nine years ago, has 275 teams of volunteers and certified therapy animals — including dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and ferrets — that, last year alone, dedicated 5,000 hours, made 3,000 visits, and reached more than 70,000 people. “The animals are very intuitive,” says Cooney. “When they walk into a school classroom, they often go straight to the child who’s having the hardest time. They just know.”

The group’s programs include reading to the dogs for kids who need help with literacy, working with children who have special needs, visiting with trauma victims, and providing comfort to hospice and chemotherapy patients. They’ve seen some amazing breakthroughs. “One boy with selective mutism spoke for the first time in months to one of our dogs,” says Cooney. “A stroke patient opened his clenched hand for the first time to pet the dog visiting him.”

While COVID-19 has made Creature Comfort’s mission more challenging — taking a toll on its income, and causing visits to go virtual for a few months — it’s hoping that fundraising efforts like a recent walkathon will help. “These animals provide true health and healing,” says Cooney. "I feel lucky that we can bring their power to so many.” For more information and to donate, go to ccpettherapy.org.

City of Elderly Love

“Senior cats and dogs are the most vulnerable, and we want to give them a safe, loving place to live out their lives,” says Erin Lewin, the president and cofounder of City of Elderly Love, a group that rescues older pets from Philadelphia’s animal shelters, provides them with foster homes, and finds families for them. The nonprofit also works with pet owners who are struggling with financial issues so that they don’t have to surrender their animals to a shelter. “We assist them with food and vet care, which are so expensive,” says Lewin. “By saving animals, it’s really good to know that you’re also helping people at the same time.”

She and four friends started City of Elderly Love in 2014, after volunteering at city shelters. “We realized there weren’t a lot of resources for older pets, and many rescue groups couldn’t afford the care they required,” she says. Thanks to their network of about 100 volunteers, the group has saved over 900 pets.

The pandemic has presented the organization with some unique challenges. “We have a lot of people who are working from home now and want to be fosters, which is really great,” says Lewin. “But our donations are down, and we need those funds in order to take on new pets.”

Like many other pet nonprofits, the group has launched a virtual race as one way to raise money. “Senior animals are special — you can’t help but want to save them,” says Lewin. “This is the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.” To learn more and to donate, go to cityofelderlylove.org.

PAWS NY

In 2008, Rachel Herman saw a homeless couple sitting outside a grocery store in New York with their dog and knew she needed to do something. “Homeless shelters don’t allow pets, and I realized that these people were giving up a warm bed because they couldn’t give up their dog,” she says.

Herman started thinking about others who might be struggling to care for a pet, and the idea for PAWS NY was born. The nonprofit provides daily care — including walking, feeding, and litter box maintenance — to the dogs and cats of older adults and anyone else who has trouble caring for their pet. It also donates food to them, pays for veterinary services, and provides foster care when needed. “We do anything we can to relieve the burden so that pet and person can stay together,” says Herman.

PAWS NY has 600 to 700 volunteers a year. “They might not be able to have a pet of their own, but they love animals, and this is a great way for them to get that interaction with an animal, connect on a deep level with the client, and help maintain that bond between pet and person,” says Herman. “It’s a win-win for everybody — especially for our clients, who are isolated. With us, they have a team of volunteers they can rely on, talk to, and develop relationships with.” So far, the organization has helped 1,000 people and 1,500 pets and has made almost 100,000 visits.

A pet is often our clients’ sole family member and companion. It’s incredibly meaningful to wake up every day and make sure they stay together.

When COVID-19 hit and volunteers couldn't make house calls, PAWS NY kept clients stocked with pet food and supplies and did virtual visits with them. They raised money through virtual races, including the New York City Marathon. “I feel this intense sense of responsibility to do this work,” says Herman, who hopes to expand the group to other cities. “A pet is often our clients’ sole family member and companion. It’s incredibly meaningful to wake up every day and make sure they stay together.” To learn more and donate, visit pawsny.org.

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