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The power of the dog and how pets are helping Ukrainians cope with war

Puzo the pug has provided his owner Jake an endless source of relief and affection during his journey west out of Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Stuffed in the back of the Nissan as he fled his hometown of Kharkiv, Ukraine, were two of Jake's most prized possessions: his Nintendo Switch and Puzo, his pet pug.

Jake, 31, is among scores of displaced Ukrainians who have refused to leave their animals behind due to the immense comfort and familiarity they've provided during a time of unprecedented turmoil caused by Russia.

"Every day, after the bombings would stop, I would get up and go to the room where [Puzo] was hiding and rub him. It was soothing," Jake, who asked for his last name to be withheld out of fear for his family, told NPR over Google Meet. "He would be snoring all the time and it would remind me of the peaceful times."

Those peaceful times were shattered for Jake, a network engineer, on Feb. 24. Jake was up late watching YouTube videos when he decided to tune into the emergency U.N. Security Council meeting.

As diplomats pleaded for Russia to back off, Jake shifted his focus to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had just gone on TV in his homeland to launch a military operation against Ukraine.

"I was just sitting there for 5 or 10 minutes completely terrified," Jake said. "And then I just started hearing explosions and windows started to shatter. ... It has been complete chaos and panic ever since."

Jake gathered his wife, Dasha; their pug; his mom and some personal possessions and hit the road on March 3 along with a caravan of 20 other family members in search of safety in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city roughly 680 miles away.

Puzo used to get nauseous on short road trips in the past, but he was fine on this long journey west "and always wants to be in my mom's hand," Jake said. One of the recurring sights on the road were other families with dogs peering from their car windows, he said.

The health benefits of pets are real

Since arriving in Poland on March 5, Louisa Gouliamaki and other photographers have seen refugees traveling with their pet dogs, birds and even a turtle, she told NPR over Instagram.

Many of these animals have made it into photos she's taken for AFP showing how pets are "members of their family so no way they would leave them behind," she said.

"For kids, surely [it] is comforting [to have their pets], a piece of their normality but as well [as] something they have to take care of which give them [a] kind of strength," Gouliamaki said.

The positive impact pets can have on people going through tumult cannot be overstated, said Lauren Powell, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine.

Pets can provide companionship, help reduce feelings of loneliness, and boost feel-good hormones, such as oxytocin, Powell told NPR over email. Pets can also help decrease our biological response to stress by lowering our stress hormones, relaxing our heart rate and blood pressure, she said.

"Previous traumatic events have shown us that pets can be vitally important for their owners during stressful times," Powell said. "They have a unique ability to provide unconditional support and companionship as they are not judgmental in nature."

NPR's Patrick Wood and Getty staff photographer Chris Furlong have seen how crucial pets have been during the war. At a border crossing from Ukraine to Poland on Wednesday, Wood saw a woman carrying her small dog among throngs of people. Furlong spotted two young refugees walking a dog dressed in a coat on March 10 at the border train station of Zahony, Hungary.

"In life and not just in war, dogs are a human's best friend," Furlong told NPR over Instagram. 

With limited resources and the added stress of being in an unfamiliar place, it's important for pet owners to understand what animals need in trying situations, said Amanda Perkins, an associate professor of nursing at Vermont Technical College.

Perkins is also the author of the February 2020 article, " The benefits of pet therapy," in which the benefits of animals in physically and emotionally stressful situations are discussed.

"Veterinary care may not be readily available or accessible, food and water may be scarce, and other supplies limited," Perkins told NPR over email about what the animals fleeing Ukraine need. "Pets may be fearful of loud noises and run-off, increasing the risk for injury when owners attempt to find them. If there are not safe places for owners and pets to stay, pet owners will often opt to stay elsewhere in order to be with their pets. Finding ways to provide aid to pet owners, such as allowing pets to stay in shelters, can decrease some of the stress felt when trying to keep them safe."

Supporting four-legged friends

There is no official figure on how many pets have fled Ukraine, but Shannon Walajtys of the International Fund for Animal Welfare has an idea.

The United Nations estimates that 2 million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the war, and if "you imagine that animals are owned [in Ukraine] by a similar number to other European countries," that figure is approximately 50% of families, Walajtys, IFAW's director of disaster response and risk reduction, told NPR over the phone.

"We're estimating that there are hundreds of thousands of pets that have crossed over with families," Walajtys said. "The people and animals across Ukraine are experiencing something that many of us can only imagine."

Aside from pets being universally considered part of a family, one of the biggest motivating factors for why scores of Ukrainian animals have crossed into neighboring countries was the recommendations from the European Commission to European Union countries to relax animal import restrictions for Ukrainian refugees with pets, said Kelly Donithan, the Humane Society International's director of disaster animal response.

Organizations like these have partnered with veterinary clinics, animal shelters and pet supply retailers in neighboring countries to provide support to those with pets.

"The refugees we've been helping have been visibly relieved to be able to access pet food and veterinary care on arrival in cities like Berlin, for example, where HSI has been working with other local groups," Donithan said over email.

HSI has also been working to help animals left behind on farms and other captive situations like zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, Donithan added.

"While I know most animals in zoos and sanctuaries are still being cared for by the staff, the very nature of these animals and/or the sheer numbers (especially on farms) makes any evacuation impossible," she said. "We are seeking opportunities to help animals in situations like these as well, but often these are the never-seen faces of victims of war. In the same way we'll probably never be able to measure the numbers of lives loss, we'll never be able to quantify the magnitude of their suffering."

The new normal

After three days of nearly nonstop driving, Jake and his family had to stop and rest.

Exhausted and eager for relief, he hopped on Reddit's r/pugs community to share a selfie of him and Puzo in the Nissan on March 6. The photo rocketed to the top of Reddit thanks to hundreds of people sharing words of encouragement and support.

"It just brings a little bit of faith in humanity when I see that people still want to help," Jake said. "And in the end, it just brings a smile. And it just helps to take, you know, my mind off what's going on and just relax a little bit."

Jake and his family reached Ivano-Frankivsk around midweek and have rented a place. Like so many Ukrainians, he's unsure when he'll be able to return home.

"I have had so many emotions since it all started, and they all been like different at different times. You know, I've been angry, I've been sad, I've been all kinds of things," Jake said. "And you know that after I made my post on Reddit it wasn't my intention, you know, to ask for money for our family or anything. I just, you know, wanted to share at least some positivity that even though it's really hard right now for Ukrainians, we still have our pets, we still have our friends, we still have our families, we're all sticking together and we're just, you know, trying to do our best to survive all of this." Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.