The paw-fect friend

 

Actor Sir Anthony Hopkins was among the first to make it mainstream. 

The Welshman captured the world’s attention when in the middle of tight COVID-19 restrictions the 82-year-old uploaded video of himself playing the piano for his beloved cat Niblo. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger went one step further when the actor-turned-politician filmed himself spending quality time with his miniature horse Whiskey and his pet donkey Lulu in his kitchen as part of a public service announcement extolling the virtues of staying at home. 

But Kiwi actor Sam Neill and his Twitter and Instafamous menagerie became the true stars of lockdown when alongside his 30 odd chickens, pigs, rams and cows named after celebrity friends, Neill helped keep spirits high during long periods of isolation. 

The Jurassic World: Dominion star, in particular, has been vocal in his claims that his pets have often proved his saving grace during times of adversity. 

In an interview with Canadian broadcasters recently, Neil noted that he liked the balance between acting, growing things and looking after animals “although the animals look after me”. 

“We depend on each other. Sometimes I go to the paddock and the cows gather around and just hang with me.” 

Clearly the opinion is not limited to celebrities as many animal shelters and rescue organisations both here and abroad were inundated with people seeking to purchase, adopt or rehome pets during the pandemic. 

Some academics even argue the belief that owning a pet can help people cope during the pandemic may be to blame for a steep increase in pet theft and related violence. 

This came after several countries – including Australia, America, and England – reported that increased interest in companion animals during this time had pushed the price up of dogs and puppies in general and sparked a high rise in dog thefts. 

Yet while the numerous physical benefits of pet ownership have been well documented, rarely has our reliance on our furry friends to help get us through the tough times been as sorely tested as it has over 2020/21 when limitations on social interaction were first introduced. 

An emotional connection

With Australia now among the many countries with high vaccination rates who are working towards reinstating lost freedoms, a growing band of research is demonstrating just how much of a crutch our pets have proved during this time. 

While prior research has suggested that companion animals may positively influence human well-being and reduce loneliness, a recent study by the University of the West of Scotland found that having cats, dogs and other pets as companions meant that for many the impact of the pandemic was lessened. 

The findings of the study, examining the links between animals and their owners during such global public health emergencies, showed pet owners overwhelmingly believe that their animals positively influenced their lives during the pandemic. 

Heather Clements, who was a UWS Ph.D student on the study, says that despite being physically isolated from friends, family, or colleagues, having a pet meant never truly being alone. 

“Companion animals not only helped to take their guardians’ minds off negative thoughts associated with the pandemic, but also provided a much-needed source of purpose,” she says. 

The results of the study of nearly 6,000 pet owners and non-pet owners investigating human-animal relationships during the United Kingdom’s first lockdown, found that nearly 90 per cent of pet owners reported their pet had helped them to cope better emotionally during lockdown. 

The study’s authors say participants who owned pets were reported to have poorer mental health before the lockdown compared to non-pet owners, indicating potentially greater vulnerability. 

“But pet owners showed less deterioration in their mental health and feelings of loneliness during the lockdown." 

"This might indicate that pets have a ‘protective’ effect on owners’ mental health. Interestingly, owners’ feelings of closeness to their pet did not vary significantly by animal species.” 

The results also showed that a sense of “companionship and connectedness”, as well as distraction from feelings of distress, a source of motivation when feeling low, and an animal’s intuitive responses might explain why they’ve largely been beneficial to owners during lockdown. 

Worryingly, a second study released in October 2020 near the start of the pandemic found that pets may have influenced the decisions and access to healthcare that people had during the pandemic. 

The US-based study found that participants may delay seeking healthcare due to concern for their pet’s welfare or if they’re unable to find appropriate care for their animal. 

A number of pet owners also said they would forgo medical care to avoid separation from their pet. 

“Pet owners often cited concern for their pets’ welfare as a factor contributing to their decision making; participants’ lack of a concrete plan for pet care was most commonly cited as the reason for their delay in seeking healthcare. Results from this study indicate that pet owners experience unique obstacles to accessing healthcare related to COVID-19, which has implications for future public health emergencies. Increased disease spread and prevalence of poor health outcomes could result if pet owners delay or avoid testing or treatment.”

Community owned

Unlike her US-based counterparts, South Australian Pat Calley cherishes her pet but not enough to consider putting her own health at risk. 

A resident of Aveo Manor Gardens in Salisbury East, Pat’s maltese poodle Rocky was bought for her by her family several years ago following the death of her husband. 

During the heart of last year’s pandemic Pat had some serious health complications following an operation. She says Rocky (whom she calls Roko when he’s “naughty”) has been her rock through this tumultuous period of her life. 

While she concedes that Rocky can be very stubborn, bossy and will bolt through any open gate, he is also kind, affectionate and is loved by all whom he encounters, she says. 

“He’s wonderful, he’s like having someone else here in the unit with me. He’s not the smartest dog around but he is my friend and when I’m out walking him everyone here will stop, give him a pat and say hello. They know him better than they know me,” Pat says. 

Three years ago, The Manors of Mosman resident Robin Frith suffered unspeakable tragedy when he lost both his wife Annette and his beloved golden retriever Zizi within a few months of each other. 

After 12 months living on his own, Frith decided he needed a dog and purchased an eight-week-old miniature groodle from a breeder from country NSW. While Frith was living in Tasmania at the time, naturally when Frith decided to move closer to family in Sydney, the very social puppy he called Lilly came too. 

Within months of moving, Frith found himself caught up in the first phase of the COVID-19 lockdown which resulted in many Sydney residents being confined to their homes. 

However, Frith says a naturally anxious and stressful time was made much easier by having his four-legged furry friend by his side. 

“She takes me for a walk three times a day, she loves to play and everyone around here just adores her – they might not know my name, but they all know hers. 

“Obviously since I made the move I see my family a lot more, but I couldn’t for a period of time, and she was and is my constant companion.” 

Elaine Farrell of Aveo Lindfield Gardens is another who believes the emotional, physical, and social support provided by pets in challenging times can never be underestimated. 

Farrell was given her cat Dusty, now five, following the death of her husband. Having had felines in her life from when she was small, her daughter felt Dusty would be someone whom Farrell could talk to when she wasn’t there. 

Five-year-old Dusty – who Farrell describes as “half rag doll and half the cat that walked past one night” – has also endeared himself to many of the residents at Lindfield Gardens. But as with the others, he is a constant support for his master. 

“He’s a very cuddly cat. If he hears me talking to my neighbour, he sits inside and yells at the top of his voice. It’s nice to come home to someone that greets you at the door and rubs against your legs, he’s a very good companion.” 

 

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