The healing power of pets

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The healing power of pets

Author: Rina Arya is Professor of Visual Culture and Theory at the University of Huddersfield.

Field site: Rina Arya’s research takes place from her home in Cheshire and also in interactions with the animal charities she works for and the members of the public who express an interest in adoption.

‘Social distancing’ is the phrase that is used to designate the safe distance that individuals are meant to take with each other to ensure mutual safety. The use of ‘social’ is misleading however, as the phenomenon in question should more accurately be described with the replacement ‘physical’ instead, which means something quite different. The most positive way of responding to social distancing is to acknowledge that, whilst physical presence has a particular irreplaceable value for humans, there are ways to combat social isolation. These require thinking flexibly and creatively.

Online responses (principally on social media) to social isolation report various findings. The initial shock of the regular lives of individuals being subverted in lockdown and the unpredictability that ensued gave way to a move towards self-improvement. Platforms advertising new skills promoted that there was no better time for improving one’s productivity and that one way of achieving this was by gaining a new skill. A new hobby, whether learning a musical instrument or new language, seemed for a short while a helpful way of coping with the upheaval of normal life and the sadness that resulted from the lack of physical contact with friends and family. But this spur soon subsided in recognition that morale was low and that people were under duress and needed to muster the energy to conserve their basic routines.

One interesting finding that has emerged from online platforms and the author’s own voluntary work as an animal fosterer for local charities in the UK was that people were discussing the therapeutic value of their pets. This resulted in a surge of the sharing of pictures and anecdotes about pets on social media platforms. The simple activity of dog walking took on a powerful social charge. Often an activity that was slotted into ordinary life pre-pandemic as something that needed to be gotten out of the way now became a tangible way to maintain health and wellbeing. The tentativeness of people leaving the home-as-refuge was eased by the lack of perturbation that dogs feel when taken for a walk. In the new alien landscape, the natural bounding vivacity of dogs is a reminder of the spontaneous. A friend separated from family meets up with her twin sister, who lives in a neighbouring town, with the purpose of dividing dog walking and joint care of Bonny the labrador. The friend, having felt increasingly isolated, benefited greatly from being able to care for her sister’s dog every other week. This, she told me, has been a practical measure to avoid loneliness and to have a directed purpose every day that took her out of herself.

The benefits of pets to the lives of individuals and families has also been responsible for people thinking about adopting an animal. Just days before lockdown the author was contacted by a member of the public who was interested in an older cat that she had been fostering. The caller explained her concern. Pre-empting her parents’ imminent isolation following the news that vulnerable groups in society were to isolate themselves, the caller decided that the company of a new and friendly cat would help her parents make this adjustment. Ordinary procedures, such as viewing the potential pet and the mandatory home-check, were done virtually instead. The appearance of the cat mattered less than the video evidence that he was indeed friendly, sociable and well-adapted. He was adopted the very next day and swiftly settled into his quiet environment. As an older cat who had to be relinquished by his previous owner, the placement with two adults who wanted nothing more than to fuss him confirmed this perfect match.

Following this episode, rehoming was closed whilst lockdown took hold. But no sooner had the go-ahead been giving for rehoming then interest was shown by a family of six in another foster cat residing with the author. They had wanted to give a home to a pet for a while and decided that now was the optimum time given that the children were off school and the parents working from home. They looked forward to the prospect of showering attention and affection on a pet in need of a forever home. It would serve a number of mutually beneficial purposes and provided a focus for family time. The addition of cat trees and a scratching post, as well as other necessities, conveyed the adaptations carried out to the home environment and a new space for shared interaction. Amidst this environment of change, it’s heartening to appreciate the enduring significance that pets have for British family life. Not only were the pets in each of these cases able to provide solace and joy to their new owners, but these testing times provided the opportunity for people to provide permanent homes for these animals in foster care.

A few reflections come to mind. In all cases noted above all, the interested adopters were experienced cat owners and sought cats who were well socialised and affectionate. The appearance of the cat mattered less than its perceived behaviour. The family of six had been waiting for some time until they found the right pet for their family but the drastic change of having to socially isolate caused them to reassess their plans, and they believed that now was the right time to introduce a pet into their family. The children had struggled with the disruption of having to be homeschooled and missed socialising with friends. Their parents, no longer having childcare and having to adjust to the challenges of working from home, believed that the cat would provide a focus of attention and a point of bonding for the family. They cited that it would enable children to learn responsibility and the care of animals, practical knowledge that went beyond curricula, and also the physical pleasure of tactility. These gains were regarded as vital in the current climate.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are the author’s own and not those of the charities she works for.