Life

Pets proving positive for mental health during coronavirus lockdown

With people cut off from loved ones, animals are providing focus and comfort for many of us. But remember, a pet isn't just for lockdown...

Newtownabbey man Andy O'Hare with his husky Thor
Maureen Coleman

IT'S widely accepted that owning a pet can have a positive impact on one's mental health, never more so than now as the Covid-19 lockdown continues.

Research carried out by leading vet charity PDSA shows that 84 per cent of pet owners reported a boost to their wellbeing, simply by having a furry or four-legged companion of some kind.

With so many people cut off from loved ones and dealing with loneliness and isolation, owning a pet is particularly beneficial for those living in lockdown on their own. Charities such as Cats Protection and Assisi Animal Sanctuary have seen a drop in demand for pet adoption, due in some part to uncertainty about the future and travel restrictions.

However, Assisi is offering a service to match foster carers with pets of care workers who are having to put in longer hours and Cats Protection is hoping to encourage the adoption of a new pet 'contactlessly' when the current travel restrictions are revised.

Conversely, the USPCA in Newry has reported a spike in the numbers of people looking to rehome or rescue pets. And while its development manager Colleen Tinnelly welcomes the increase in animal lovers wanting to give pets a new home, she is also urging caution to anyone who may be thinking that a pet is just for lockdown.

“Of course there is a massive argument that owning a pet is good for your mental health and keeping to a routine,” she says. “But there is the other side to the story. Have people thought beyond lockdown, when they have to go back to work? If a dog, have they thought about training it; walking it?

“At the moment we have suspended our rehoming service but are hoping restrictions are lifted soon. As we were heading into lockdown we noticed people wanting to rehome a cat, dog or rabbit as they are fantastic company, especially if you live on your own.

“But what we don't want is to see an increase in animals coming back to us in August.”

Siobhan McHaffie, operations manager of Cats Protection, said pet ownership could be a lifesaver for those in isolation and that they could even be a reason for someone to get out of bed, if feeling anxious or depressed. But she too sounded a cautionary note.

“When you know that you have a pet which relies totally on you, it can be a really positive motivation,” she said. “But for anyone thinking of adopting a cat at this time, I would ask that the person really considers all of the implications. Most vets are running at a much-reduced rate of service, and are having to be really careful in terms of the work they undertake.

“I would therefore ask the person to speak to their local vet and take advice on what support will be available if the cat becomes unwell, requires a vaccination, or needs to be neutered. Cats can breed from only four months of age, so if you adopt a cute kitten and your vet can’t provide neutering, you could soon have a lot of kittens to look after.”

Newtownabbey man Andy O'Hare, who runs Flights Gymnastics Academy, comes from a family of animal lovers. He'd always wanted a husky but the commitment of the academy meant this was impossible.

When schools across the north began to close down and parents were concerned about sending their children to gymnastic classes, Andy took the decision to close down. It was with a heavy heart he told the students the news, particularly as many were gearing up for international championships.

With time on his side, Andy, who lives alone, visited the Tyrone Husky Rescue. Following a home visit, he was given ownership of his new four-legged friend. Although Thor hadn't been badly treated by his previous owners, the dog suffered from separation anxiety as a result of being surrendered to the rescue centre but it didn't take him long to settle in. And his presence has made all the difference to Andy's lockdown experience.

“Thor is such an affectionate dog and great company,” says Andy. “On the days the situation starts to get to me, having Thor here has been a great help. He's also forced me to stay active and to get out walking. And when all this is over and we reopen, I'll have a special place for him outside the gymnastics facility so he's not left on his own.”

Belfast woman Alison Patrick volunteers at Cat Protection and has had 14 cats so far. She and her husband currently have two, Katie, who's 15 and a recently acquired new addition, Willow, aged '14 plus'.

Alison Patrick and her cat Willow, one of the last cats to be rehomed before lockdown

When a much-loved old cat had to be put to sleep in February, she knew she wanted to give another elderly cat some TLC in its final years. Willow was one of the last cats to be rehomed before lockdown.

“Cats are so therapeutic,” she says. “I think it's the tactile aspect of it; having a little friend to hold and stroke; more so than dogs. Having the cats has definitely helped make me feel calmer at this time.”

Part-time accountant Julie Daly was heading to the gym just before lock-down when she popped into the pet store next door and took home two rescue rabbits, to add to a motley collection of pets at her 'miniature zoo' in Newtownabbey.

Julie Daly holding Puff, the rabbit and daughter Eve (11) with one of the rescued guinea pigs, Cookie

“We have a dog, four guinea pigs, two budgies and now Sugar and Puff,” says the mum-of-three children, aged five, 11 and 15. “We'd had a rabbit but it died before Christmas and had been planning to get another. Lockdown seemed an opportune time because we're all at home.

“The rabbits have free rein of our big garden. The kids have great craic when they're hopping around. And the dog's definitely benefiting too from having us all here.”

One of the rabbits is a long haired angora therapy rabbit, which is helping Julie's middle child cope with anxiety as she waits to find out which school she'll be attending. Having the pets has also taught the children about responsibilities and duties of care.

“With me working from home a lot, I'll be here to look after them, although the rabbits don't need that much attention. Owning so many pets has certainly made life much more fun during lockdown.”

Award-winning hairdresser Sharon Malcolm from Co Down already had a blue British short hair kitten, Ruby, but wanted a playmate for her. Ruby's brother Max had died at five days old but when another litter arrived at the end of January, Sharon went to meet the new kittens and fell in love with Buba, a black British short hair. She was due to bring him home on April 26, but with lock-down approaching, she got him earlier.

Hairdresser Sharon Malcolm from Co Down with Buba, a British short hair kitten

“I've grown up with cats and wanted some company for Ruby, as well as myself,” she says. “I live alone and am a very positive person but at the moment, I've so many things to think about, like sorting out PPE when I open my salon again. Having the kittens is so therapeutic.

“I've got everything covered, insurance, vaccinations, food and litter. I've even had a cat house built.

“I find that stroking and massaging them is calming and apart from being such fun, I also love the way they just live in the moment. They enjoy the 'now' and they bring me into it too. I don't think about yesterday or tomorrow when I'm playing with the kittens. They just bring me so much joy.”

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