Helping Humans Cope: The Popularity of Pandemic Pets and Civil War Companion Animals

Helping Humans Cope: The Popularity of Pandemic Pets and Civil War Companion Animals

In the fall of 1863, Civil War soldier Levi Downs wrote to his sister in Connecticut to apologize for not sending a dog home to her son. Apparently, he had promised one to his nephew, but the animals were in short supply near his regiment’s location in Virginia. “Last winter there were plenty,” he explained, “but folks north heard of it and they have all been picked up. I may manage to steal one but I may not have luck,” he told her.[1]

Similar shortages of comfort animals, especially cats and dogs, were widely reported around the United States in 2020 and early 2021 as the Covid-19 pandemic and associated shut-downs forced people into social distancing. Eager for companionship, many people responded to the isolation by adopting pets.

Hand holding paper with cat looking at it
The author’s cat, Kali, helping review page proofs. (Courtesy of author)

Psychological studies confirm the mental and physical health benefits of animal ownership, including the amelioration of stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and high blood pressure. Caressing a pet increases production of oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding, empathy, and other positive social effects, much like human touch can provoke.[2] For both Civil War soldiers away from loved ones and people enduring isolation due to the pandemic, animals offered a critical replacement for human affection and touch. Likewise, animals offer a distraction, whether from the terror and boredom of war or the monotony of lockdown and fear of becoming ill with a deadly disease. The need to focus on caring for an animal, in addition to the humor and entertainment that pets often deliver, can do wonders for passing the time.[3]

When I began writing about soldiers’ desire to have a comfort animal with them during the Civil War (in violation of military policy), I could not help but hear the echoes of the current surge in pet adoptions. “Pandemic pets” have given untold numbers of people some emotional relief during this profoundly challenging time. The self-reporting of what these adopters have gained by acquiring a pet companion offers a window into the deeply valuable role that animals can play in humans’ lives. Karen McCullough, a single woman who normally spends her time traveling, working long hours away from home, and enjoying not having responsibilities to tie her down, found herself bereft as lockdowns utterly disrupted her regular routine. In a revealing comment, McCullough acknowledged that “everything that I actually am was taken away from me” by the pandemic’s upheavals. Her very sense of self had been disrupted. But Rosie, a two-month-old terrier, “has really given me a strong sense of purpose…Who knew a little Rosie could change my life?”[4]

Pencil drawing of soldier with a dog
“Soldier with Dog” – Soldiers not only kept animals with them when possible, they also sometimes drew and photographed their pets. This is not dissimilar to the popularity of posting photographs of pets on social media today.
Courtesy of the Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society,

It may seem ironic that pets can restore the very essence of our selves, yet this was precisely what Civil War soldiers gained by having relationships with animals. At a time when pet-keeping was not yet widespread among the masses in the United States, Civil War soldiers found themselves desperately seeking to acquire an animal. Some so urgently wanted one that they resorted to theft – as Levi Downs suggested to his sister that he might attempt – and other shady practices in order to secure one. A Georgia soldier attempted to lure a dog away from his fallen owner on a battlefield, to no avail. John Burke wrote despondently in his diary that his dog Ned, to whom he was “so attached,” had gone missing. Despite offers of a reward for the animal’s return, Burke never saw him again.[5]Predations on animals claimed by others highlights the value that the men placed on having a pet for themselves – being willing to steal another’s pet, even from a soldier dead on the battlefield, makes clear that soldiers would go to great lengths to have an animal for themselves.

The affection that they developed for their animals persuaded some to extend pet-keeping into the home front. John Gallison had aspirations of finding a dog “with a fine tail” for his wife, Sarah. Charles Tew’s wife disliked animals (she complained that their hair “plagued her”), but he longed to have a pet at home. He found a small dog in Virginia that he claimed for himself. Naming it Lucy Long, Tew kept it in his tent and cuddled it in his bed at night. He regaled his children with stories of Lucy’s antics, and wistfully wrote, “I wish you had it and you can tell mother tis a dog of good habits knows when to go out doors and real clean.”[6] He seemed to hope that the children might persuade their mother to relent on the question of bringing a pet into their family circle.

Without having the modern-day sensibilities of animals’ value to mental and physical health or the language to articulate why a pet meant so much to them, soldiers nevertheless became more human when they had an animal to care for. In the midst of the war’s horrors, soldiers exhibited tremendous tenderness towards the animals that they brought under their protection. Despite the emotional hardening that came with warfare, the men carried tired animals during long marches when the soldiers themselves had to suffer through the exertion; they fed their pets edible treats when food beyond army rations could be difficult to acquire; they rescued animals from danger even at grave personal risk; and they spent precious money on special collars, blankets, and even posthumous memorials. In today’s social media milieu, that generosity towards animals has translated into millions of dollars raised on sites like We Rate Dogs and Foster Baby Cats on behalf of animals in need. When Matt Nelson shares a GoFundMe campaign on his We Rate Dogs platforms, it is often fully funded within the hour.[7]

Soldier monument
Sallie, the regimental pet of the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry, memorialized at Gettysburg (at the base of the statue). She was killed in 1865 at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run.

In recent years, psychologists have devoted energy to studying the efficacy of using animals to improve the mental health of military personnel during deployment and to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among combat veterans. The results of those studies widely affirm that service animals (especially dogs; cats and other animals have received less attention) provide a statistically significant improvement in military personnel’s wellbeing.[8] But soldiers, and people isolated by COVID (or anything else), don’t need studies to prove what they experience directly: pets make people feel more human.

[1] Levi Downs to sister, Oct. 3, 1863, in Levi B. Downs Papers, William L. Clements Library.

[2] See, for example, L. Morgan, A. Protopopova, R.I.D. Birkler, et al. Human–dog relationships during the COVID-19 pandemic: booming dog adoption during social isolation. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 7, 155 (2020), accessed 5/28/21.; Patti Neighmond, “Pet Adoptions Bring Some Joy during Coronavirus Pandemic,” National Public Radio, November 11, 2020, accessed 6/3/21,

[3] Emma Grey Ellis, “Thanks to Sheltering in Place, Animal Shelters Are Empty,” Wired 4/10/2020, accessed 6/3/21,

[4] Neighmond, “Pet Adoptions Bring Some Joy.”

[5] Charles G. Worman, Civil War Animal Heroes: Mascots, Pets, and War Heroes (Schroeder Publications, 2011), pp. 45-46; John W. Burke, “Memoir” (unpublished memoir), p. 28. William L. Clements Library.

[6] John Gallison to mother, November 14, 1862, in John B. Gallison Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society; Charles Tew to children, November 25, 1862, in Charles F. Tew Papers, William L. Clements Library.

[7] Taylor Locke, “Matt Nelson Founded We Rate Dogs as a Teen – Now It’s a Booming Business that’s also Raised over $1.3 million for Dogs in Need,”, Jan. 21, 2021, accessed 6/3/21,

[8] See, for example, Myra F. Taylor, et al., “Reaching Down and Finding Humanity: Military Personnel’s Experiences of Adopting Dogs while on Deployment,” Society & Animals (2015), pp. 1-22; Megan Kloep, “The Effect of Psychiatric Service Dogs for PTSD Symptom Amelioration in Military Veterans,” PhD diss., (Southern Illinois University, 2016).



Marcy Sacks

Marcy Sacks is the Julian S. Rammelkamp Professor of History at Albion College.

2 Replies to “Helping Humans Cope: The Popularity of Pandemic Pets and Civil War Companion Animals”

  1. It’s fascinating to see the lengths some Civil War soldiers would go to in order that a dog could accompany them, or be sent home to their loved ones. Here’s a related story that I enjoyed, told in correspondence between an enlisted man of one regiment and the colonel of another, about the true ownership of a stray dog they both had claimed. Guess which soldier got to keep the dog?

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