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A level-pawing: placing our pets on the same level as family

Sat at my desk, obsessively refreshing news updates and anxiously waiting for emails, I’m suddenly provided with a welcome moment of solace by the nonchalant plodding of ginger paws across my keyboard and a demand for my affection as my cat Monty takes his time to nest himself on my lap, blissfully oblivious to the world beyond our garden fence. In these uncertain times, the benefits of animal company are being craved more than ever. To the delight of our cats, dogs and all pets in between, lockdown translates as an opportunity to give them our undivided attention and in return they are providing us with a much-needed source of joy and consistency.

Pet-ownership is well known to help settle anxiety, reduce loneliness and lift moods, and particularly in the midst of the current crisis, the magical effects felt from their company are being amplified. Even as we are spending an unprecedented amount of time in isolation, they are still acting as gateways to building community as people share pictures of their beloved companions online in a combined effort to raise spirits.

It is in such times that we realise just how much our pets matter as part of the family. As a long-term cat lady and a puppy owner to be, the thought of a pet being anything less than a cherished member of the household has never been a question. We share our familiarities and indulge in the same small home comforts. Children who have grown up with a dog have been found to display more empathy and self-esteem than those who haven’t, demonstrating that our pets can be as valuable as our human family members in teaching us about ourselves and how to approach the world. The bond that we develop with our them is one free of the tiffs and turbulence that (particularly in confinement) we have no doubt all encountered with our immediate family members. In short, our animals’ love and loyalty is unique in its unwavering simplicity.

As such, the death of a pet can feel as debilitating and traumatic as that of a close friend or family member, yet it is something that remains trivialised. The mourning that accompanies it remains something frequently cloaked in shame and many admit to requesting time off work without being honest about why, for fear of ridicule or lack of understanding. However, with the loss of a pet comes an emptiness where their unconditional devotion once resided and moments in the day that we once dedicated to their care become suddenly unoccupied. It is a very real feeling of bereavement that only provides further testimony to their status as family.

Vet and author James Herriot wrote “If having a soul means being able to feel love, loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.” Pets are not an accessory or a disposable emotional commodity. Having a pet is having an additional member of the family and now more than ever our they can serve as models for the kind of grounded compassion we ought to be extending to a destabilised world.

Image: Helen Martin via Flickr