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Mr. Fluffybottom goes to Washington: Pet Week on Capitol Hill

In the 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart played a freshman US Senator who held the Senate hostage for 24 hours with a heartfelt filibuster. Last week, pets held Congress hostage for three days, and all they did was be their adorable, dependable selves.

The event was Pet Week on Capitol Hill, a COVID-friendly virtual version of the hugely popular Pet Night on Capitol Hill, an annual event that brings together veterinary professionals, animal-welfare advocates, and members of Congress to celebrate the importance of pets to human health and wellbeing, support public policies that will help create a more pet-friendly society, and, of course, show off their pets.

Hosted by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) and cosponsored by AAHA, Pet Week highlighted timely issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on pet adoption in America and the importance of passing lifesaving pet-related legislation aimed at improving the lives of veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder and survivors of domestic violence.

Spearheaded by HABRI executive Steven Feldman, Pet Week delivered the message to our elected representatives that pets are important for human health and quality of life—particularly during the pandemic.

Thousands of participants experienced the human-animal bond from afar, with virtual visits from Pet Partners therapy animals and adoptable pets from the Humane Rescue Alliance. Pet Week also featured a special guest appearance from Baseball Hall of Famer Tony La Russa, who spoke on the lifesaving impact of service dogs for veterans with posttraumatic stress.

Among Pet Week’s virtual highlights: Representative Kurt Schrader, DVM, (D-Oregon), one of three veterinarians in Congress, discussed the importance of One Health Act legislation aimed at helping protect people and pets from zoonotic diseases, and the key role of veterinary medicine in preventing future pandemics.

While the current pandemic has brought myriad unwelcome changes, one positive adjustment is the shift in people’s outlook on pets.

"We’ve seen news story after news story about how pets were a bright spot during the pandemic,” Feldman told NEWStat. He says that’s going to pay big dividends for both pets and humans down the line.

“Many of the changes we’ve seen during the pandemic will stick, thanks to the role pets played in helping people cope with it,” Feldman said. Some of these changes include increased demand for veterinary telehealth and virtual care. “I don’t think that’s going away; that’s going to be a permanent part of the veterinary landscape.”

Feldman believes a looming eviction crisis due to pandemic-related financial hardship will result in rising demand for affordable pet-friendly housing, which can be hard to find. “We need to make sure pets aren’t left behind when this happens,” Feldman said. “As we continue to acquire more pets, pet-friendly housing will become the norm.”

Not to mention pet-friendly office spaces: “When people do go back to work, there’ll be greater demand for pet-friendly workplaces because we won’t want to leave our pets behind,” he predicts.

Feldman says the pandemic will turn out to be a driver for a more pet-friendly society, and more pet-friendly policies, all across the board.

HABRI’s doing its part to encourage that. “We’ve pivoted to try to support the pet-care community and pet owners during the pandemic,” Feldman said. That’s why HABRI funds scientific research on the human health benefits of having pets, then turns the raw data into free content they share on their website to educate people on those benefits.

To make sure that content got out to the public, HABRI streamed Pet Week live on Facebook. “Not only did we reach thousands of people in Washington, DC; we reached people all over the country,” said Feldman. “Virtual Pet Week turned out to be bigger than Pet Night ever was.”

Audience participation and engagement with their content was so strong that HABRI plans to retain many of the virtual elements when Mr. Fluffybottom returns to Washington in person after the pandemic ends.

Meanwhile, you can still check out Pet Week and HABRI’s content online.

Why did HABRI insist on going ahead with Pet Week in the middle of a pandemic? “Because the human-animal bond is having its moment, and it’s going to result in changes not only now, but into the future,” Feldman said. “Because veterinarians were deemed essential during the pandemic and veterinary practices continued to do a great job helping people care for their pets, and it was really important to deliver that message to Congress. Even in a pandemic.”

Maybe especially in a pandemic.

Photo credit: © Gettyimages/kingkong81