Deb Bitzan’s poodle mixes, Rufus and Tesla, have started popping into her home office and circling her standing desk around noon on weekdays.

They know lunchtime is when they get to go outside and play, said Bitzan, a 32-year-old downtown Columbus resident.

Bitzan is a CoverMyMeds employee and has been working at home for the past few weeks because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Initially, she said, she realized she wasn’t giving herself any breaks. But her dogs have helped her regulate her schedule and take breaks to stretch, eat something or go outside with them, she said.

“They’ll check in with me every few hours,” she said.

Many other central Ohioans have traded coworkers for furry friends during the pandemic and the state’s stay-at-home orders. And those pets could be having a positive impact on their mental well-being, according to experts.

Research has shown that interacting with a pet, whether in a physical or mental way, even for intermittent periods of time, can have profound mental- or physical-health benefits, said Rustin Moore, dean of the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

In March 2016, Moore spoke at a TEDxOhioStateUniversity conference on the human-animal bond and the benefits of pet ownership.

Moore said benefits of pet ownership might be even more profound during this period of social distancing than under normal circumstances. Pets are especially important for those with mental-health conditions during physical isolation, he said.

Whenever a person interacts with a pet, especially through physical touching, two things occur, Moore said. The stress hormone, cortisol, decreases, and the “feel-good” hormone, oxytocin, increases, he said.

Stress relief is something Hilliard resident Blake Miller has noticed as he works at home alongside rescue dogs Toby, Onyx, Sofi and Pike.

The 23-year-old is a training officer for the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities, and he had worked on the 13th floor of the James A. Rhodes State Office Tower in downtown Columbus.

Now, Miller said, taking five minutes to throw a ball with one of his dogs outside gives him a new frame of mind when he returns to his work.

“It’s been much more refreshing than anything I’ve been able to do at work,” he said.

Columbus resident Christie Ross, 31, said she has found herself working more at home for a pet-insurance company, Pumpkin, than she had done from the office, simply because it’s always accessible.

But her dogs have been forcing her to take breaks, she said.

Ross has three rescue dogs – Bruno, Murphy and Stella – and two cats, Marley and Lucy.

She said that as someone who recently was divorced and now is living alone, her animals provide an emotional connection when she is working from home with limited socialization. Pet ownership also helps her connect with other animal lovers online via social media, she said.

“Having my pets with me is everything,” Ross said.

April Samuelson, 33, who lives in Columbus’ Merion Village neighborhood, said having her dog, Blondie, by her side while social distancing has made a big difference.

Samuelson works for an IT equipment manufacturer and said she had to try working from multiple rooms in her house before Blondie would refrain from barking and hopping onto her lap or computer.

She finally settled on her guest bedroom, she said, because he can sleep on the day bed and gaze out the window at squirrels.

Although Samuelson has adjusted to working at home with Blondie, her new environment also has given her the opportunity to meet the pets of other coworkers through videoconferencing. The experience has given her a better sense of other people’s lives, she said.

Kathleen Watson, a Hilliard City Schools student teacher, said the opportunity for her students to see her cat, Caesar, via video chat helps her build rapport with them.

In addition to Caesar, the 24-year-old Grandview Heights resident’s cats include Norman and Wilhelmina.

Watson said she has enjoyed working from home because she has the opportunity to help Wilhelmina, who went blind a year or so ago, around the house.

Wilhelmina spends most of the time lying on a heat register in Watson’s office, but she will come up to Watson’s desk and tap her on the shoulder for attention.

Caesar, meanwhile, likes to enter the office and throw himself onto the floor or hop onto Watson’s lap.

“I think they love having someone home with them all the time,” she said.

ssole@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekSarah