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Photo courtesy of Rachel Charlene Lewis

My girlfriend grew up with cats, and she has a (massive) soft spot for any stray she comes across. While they have always had her entire heart, it’s taken me a beat longer to fall in love with my cats. I love them dearly. They can just be complicated, difficult to read, and, at times, completely baffling, with their mysterious behavior and penchant for disappearing for hours at a time.

But isolation has me feeling grateful for my cats in a way that I maybe missed out on before.

Sure, my cats disappear for hours, but they do come back, and when they do, they’re soft, and warm, and changing, and alive — a thing rare in the midst of an international pandemic that has most of us stuck inside. (Am I the only one getting weirdly excited about seeing a bird at my window?)

Fostering is up, with shelters and rescues seeing an increase in the number of applications they’re getting from people who are desperate to add a little life, and a little light, to their living spaces.

“I’ve always wanted to foster, but quarantine really gave me the time and space to do it,” Olivia, 23, a writer based in North Carolina, tells Greatist. “Young kittens especially need lots of attention. They eat 3 to 4 times per day, so while I was working full time in the office, I knew I wouldn’t have the time to properly care for them. But now that I’m working from home, it seemed like the perfect time to start.”

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Photo courtesy of Rachel Charlene Lewis

Minnie, 33, a Project Manager based in Austin, Texas tells me that she was feeling a little useless and zoned out before she decided to foster a pup. It turned out to be a way of making the best of a bad situation.

“I thought it would be a fun personal challenge for me, having never fostered or had a pet of my own. I thought, if I am staying home all day anyway, I might as well provide some comfort and relief for an innocent animal who is struggling in the shelter. Win-win.”

“I’d been wanting to foster for quite some time, because I grew up with dogs and missed having them around, but my busy schedule always stopped me,” Erica, 22, a photographer based in NYC, tells me.

“Once the pandemic hit, I literally had no reason not to — I’m now home all of the time. And I knew having a dog would help with my stress and loneliness while stuck in NYC during the pandemic. Both of my roommates ended up leaving, so I’m extremely grateful to have a dog right now.”

That doesn’t mean that fostering or adopting during quarantine is a walk in the park. A report from the New York Times explains that adopting or fostering a pet, even during quarantine, is a real commitment. After all, our pets need us even when we’re feeling especially distracted by the pandemic, or too down to care for anything, including ourselves.

“There are definitely stressful parts about fostering,” Olivia explains. “It can be nerve-wracking to be responsible for the lives of such tiny, vulnerable creatures.” And, it’s been worth it.

“Overall it’s been a net positive for my mental health,” Olivia says. “Taking care of the kittens has given me something else to focus on besides my own anxieties, and it also provides structure to my day. I feed the kittens as soon as I wake up and right before I go to bed, and I take breaks from work whenever they need to play. It’s also calming to gain their trust and provide a safe place for them to grow.”

Erica agrees. “Having Nena, my foster dog, has really helped with my loneliness and anxiety during the pandemic. I cannot even imagine what my mental health would be like without her. She forces me to go outside everyday and is also my sole source of socialization.”

Minnie has also found a ton of warmth and positivity in having something to really focus her energy on. “Having a pet has worked wonders for my mental health and overall wellness,” she says.

“I take the dog to the park every morning which means I feel the warm sunshine on my skin and hear birds singing before reading my first email. It’s such a peaceful way to start the day, and has led to a change in my routine even when I’m not fostering an animal. Also, caring for a dog has provided a sense of meaning and purpose, during a time when it’s so easy to wallow in negativity and cynicism.”

I’ve always considered myself to be a dog person. My mom grew up with dogs, and I grew up with two chocolate labs at any given time. My siblings and I were all surely going to stay dog people. And then, I ended up with a cat. And then another one. Now, I feel more connected to my cats than I did amid my everyday life.

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Photo courtesy of Rachel Charlene Lewis

They represent times of personal growth that comes with watching something else live and change. We’ve learned each other’s needs and love languages — even the simple things, like each other’s sounds and expressions when we need more of something, or less of something else.

Dr. Yang, my tortie kitten, is obsessed with thongs; Baby Belle, our almost-1-year-old, loves a hairband to the point that she’ll scream and scream until we give her one. I am entirely out of hairbands and have shifted to scrunchies in her honor.

In turn, when I’m feeling especially anxious, I can pat my chest and Dr. Yang will walk over and sit on top of me, her little head on my shoulder and her purs offering a beat of calm. When my girlfriend and I head to bed, we’ll set out Squish, the stuffed animal I’ve had since college, and Baby Belle will run over to make muffins on his fluffy old body.

When I’m beginning to spin out from days in the same room, Baby Belle always knows when to approach, hairband in tow, and beg to play. It’s a give and take, and a learning experience for us all, but as each other’s primary source of both entertainment and of love, we’ve gotten to the point where even when I frustrate my cats, or they frustrate me, at some point in the day they’ll return for hours of cuddles apropos of nothing.

As overdramatic as it may sound, there’s something powerful about knowing I have these two warm and fuzzy creatures who will curl up against my chest and vibrate some good vibes into my soul. They’ll always come back, no matter how long they’ve been gone, or how long I need my space.

Rachel Charlene Lewis is a senior editor at Bitch Media. She has written for publications such as Teen Vogue, Self, Refinery29, Catapult, and more. Reach out to her on Twitter.