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Coronavirus: How pets are supporting people through the loneliness of lockdown

The mental and physical advantage of having a pet is proving to be especially pertinent during this stressful time, finds​ Joanna Whitehead

Tuesday 31 March 2020 18:20
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'Pets can be very calming when we’re going through anxious times'
'Pets can be very calming when we’re going through anxious times'

As the UK enters its second week of lockdown, many people are struggling with the shift to an entirely new way of life. Uncertainty about the future, separation from family and loved ones and concerns about health and wellbeing are just a handful of the anxieties currently affecting many people. This is particularly acute for those who are isolating alone.

Although the benefit of time with animals is widely accepted, the mental and physical advantage of having a pet is proving to be especially pertinent during this stressful time. As a result, the coronavirus outbreak has inspired many people to open up their homes to pets in need of adoption.

Prior to the UK lockdown, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home in London saw a surge in interest, with the week beginning Monday 16 March resulting in the rehoming of 86 dogs and 69 cats, an increase of over 100 per cent for both animals compared with the same week last year.

Vet nurse Joanne Wright from the UK’s leading vet charity PDSA acknowledges the value of pets during difficult times, telling The Independent: “One great thing about owning a pet is that they can offer unconditional love and friendship, which is more important than ever through these challenging and uncertain times. What’s even better is that many of our animals, who may otherwise be left alone for extended periods of time, will also be able to enjoy lots of company and fuss at home,” she says.

Research by PDSA reveals that 84 per cent of pet owners state that having a pet has had a positive impact on their mental health. “Pets can also be very calming when we’re going through anxious times, and they can provide focus and purpose, which can be particularly important for vulnerable and lonely people,” adds Wright.

Jennifer Romano, 35, lives with Jarvis, a 15-year-old ginger tomcat and has always found his presence soothing. “Jarvis has always been a huge comfort in difficult or stressful times,” she tells The Independent. “Knowing there’s a little creature who can’t wait to see you when you get home and who has no idea what is going on in the world outside has definitely helped me to shake off the worries of the day and put things in perspective. Having animals around definitely grounds you.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Jen Kaarlo, 35, who lives with her one-year-old cavapoo Céline. Getting cosy with her pooch is one way in which Jen combats loneliness while on lockdown. “Evenings are my favourite time of the day, as we snuggle up together on the sofa and either catch-up with friends over video chat or watch a feel-good movie,” she says. “This part of our routine is steadily helping to combat any loneliness and bouts of anxiety that can arise, as it’s giving me something to look forward to at the end of each day.”

Jennifer and Jarvis indoors (Jennifer Romano)

Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, tells The Independent that pets can have a profound impact on an individual’s wellbeing. “For someone who feels alone and isolated, pets can provide an important sense of connection,” she says. “They can also be a great sense of comfort when someone’s feeling sad or distressed.”

Céline relaxing at home

For Romano, the current lockdown has only served to reinforce the importance of Jarvis in her life, helping to curtail loneliness. "Living alone, especially during the current lockdown, makes me feel extra grateful to have Jarvis with me," she says.

Kaarlo, similarly, is grateful for the extra company. "Since days are starting to become less distinguishable from the last, I’m beyond thrilled to have Céline here with me."

Lucy Barker, 46, lives with two cats – calico Brontë, four, and Jeremy Fisher, 18 months. “I live alone on the outskirts of Bradford – Brontë country,” she tells The Independent. I’m so happy that they live here with me, particularly now, as it can be strange doing isolation as the only human. It’s like Robinson Crusoe but with cats and internet,” she jokes.

Barker values the companionship offered by her pets. “We are a little gang,” she says. "Living with the pair of them makes life under lockdown infinitely more interesting and manageable."

But, through all the joy pets undoubtedly bring their owners, the animals are also likely to be impacted by the recent changes in our routines, explains Dr Lauren Finka, an animal behaviour expert at Nottingham Trent University. 

Lucy and Brontë hard at work (Photo courtesy of Lucy Barker)

“Due to the ongoing restrictions we are all now facing, our pets are likely to experience a very different (human) social environment than they are used to,” she tells The Independent. “Whilst many dogs may lavish the extra time and attention from their owners, some may find the increased commotion in the household a little overwhelming, especially if we all seem a little agitated,” she says. “This can be especially the case for cats who generally prioritise some quite periods alone throughout the day and may prefer to snooze when the house is quiet during the day.”

Ensuring cats still have quiet, undisturbed places they can go to throughout the day is vital, says Dr Finka. “It’s therefore important to try to stick to ‘business as usual’ when it comes to the daily routines our pets are used to,” she says.

Wright says that “with children off school, busier households can be stressful for pets," so the key is to ensure your pet gets some alone time just as you would like for yourself. “Our pets are potentially very sensitive to the way we smell, the tone of our voice, our postures and body language and even our moods,” she says.

One way to help with this is to create an area where your pet can go if they need some space. “Be sure to allow your pet to get some peace and rest when needed and you could also build a ‘den’ where they can retreat if it all gets to much – a fun task that children can help with,” she says. ​

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