In the latest feature in our 2020 loneliness campaign, we investigate the evidence for pets as a prescription for loneliness in the countryside. We meet a pensioner, a graduate, a widower and a carer.
The fact that animals can soften the pangs of loneliness might not come as a surprise – half of us, after all, own a pet. With a wag of the tail and a flick of the whiskers, pets distract us from our own concerns. They offer an opportunity for affection. They give us a purpose: to feed, to play, to walk, to remove fur from our clothes before we go out. And they might provide the chance to connect with other pet owners, too – we have an immediate topic of conversation.
We might feel we know all this anyway – a survey of Country Living readers earlier this year found that 90% believe pets can help combat loneliness – but now there’s research to back up our instincts.
Pet owners are 60% more likely than non-pet owners to get to know people in their area, according to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. And last year, a poll of 2,000 adults by Mars Petcare UK found that nine out of 10 pet owners felt less lonely when they got a cat or dog, while two thirds said they felt a sense of purpose, and more than half found socialising easier.
Here, Country Living meet four pet owners who have never looked back...
Amy Griffin 26, Hampshire, and her cats, Holly and Harry
"The summer after graduating was a really confusing time. I’d gone straight from school to university – and not knowing the next step unsettled me. I moved back to the family home while I figured out what to do next. I wasn’t sure what career path to take and wasn’t used to being away from my friends. Back home, I didn’t have a routine of lectures or an instant social life – but I did have my two cats.
"We’d had Holly and Harry since I was a child, and I’d always loved having them around. Holly is gentle, Harry likes attention. But it was only now that I really appreciated them. The cats diffused any tension in the house and provided constant company. Harry made me laugh when we had fish for supper by lying in front of me on his back, paws in the air, hoping to be fed. I’d often catch him trotting down the road with a sausage or pork chop in his mouth – anything he could scavenge from bins outside the local pub.
"Sometimes, I’d go for a walk in the surrounding countryside, stopping to read under a tree. The cats would follow me and sit on a branch above my head. They didn’t ask me career questions. They were accepting and non-judgmental.
"Now I work in financial services and volunteer for Cats Protection every other Sunday. I started helping out because I wanted something fulfilling to do in my free time. I get to be around cats even more – and I’m surrounded by people who understand how much mine mean to me."
Mike Elliston 76, Essex, and Flora, the Parson Russell terrier
"My wife had multiple sclerosis for many years and I retired early to look after her. She was such an active, happy person. I was devastated when she passed away and felt terribly lonely. My nearest relatives were 60 miles away.
"I soon got Flora and she quickly became my constant companion. She now follows me around the house, with her teddy in her mouth, ‘helping’ me with the housework
by sitting in front of the vacuum. She likes gardening, too, flattening the vegetable patch after I’ve planted seeds and burying biscuit bones in the flowerbeds. In the evening,
she watches television with me on the sofa, and sleeps cuddled up to me on my bed. One
"Christmas we were on our own because the family were all doing different things.
I was especially glad to have Flora as it meant I didn’t feel alone. I still have bad days, but she cheers me up by giving me ‘the eyes’ – gazing at me when she wants something.
"Flora is so photogenic that she appeared on a jumper one year, which was sold at Oasis, the fashion store. My eight-year-old granddaughter in Southampton sent me a photo of herself wearing it. Flora has also been on charity Christmas cards – someone heard about us after that and wrote to me. She was also on her own, except for her cat, so we had a connection. It was really hard coming back to an empty house after I lost my wife but now I always have company – I have Flora."
Nikki Davis 43, West Cornwall, and Maple, the golden retriever/poodle cross
"I got Maple after losing my dad. Months later, my mum developed dementia. She was often confused and I moved in to look after her. Training Maple gave me another focus. As she got older, she kept an eye on Mum when she wandered around the house, and barked if she fell. At night, she’d come into my room if Mum got up, alerting me to go and check on her.
"When I took Mum to hospital for tests, Maple would come, too, and I didn’t feel so alone. She was such a calming presence that we’d visit other patients, so they could meet her. When Mum died four years later, Maple came to the funeral. I had friends there, but only Maple really understood what I’d been through – she’d been through it, too.
"Loneliness then hit me even harder as I didn’t have any close family and I work from home in property management. Maple told me when we were stopping for dinner and made me go for walks. Having cared for Mum for so long, I wasn’t used to socialising with others and my self-esteem was really low. Maple made me speak to people – whenever I went out with her, she would make friends and I’d end up chatting to them as well. I never took a ball with us to the beach because she’d always chase after someone else’s.
"Last year, Maple was a finalist at Scruffts, the crossbreed competition at Crufts. We had to perform an obedience test in front of thousands of people. Maple gave me the confidence to do that. She enjoys life – I’m trying to learn from her."
Felicity Hansen 76, Isle of Mull, and her cat Rafi the Siamese
Felicity Hansen is lying on the floor, teaching her cat to ring a counter bell. It will be a new trick to tell locals about when she goes to the shop. Rafi the Siamese is a celebrity on the Isle of Mull. Felicity, 76, moved three years ago from the other side of the island. “I felt very isolated and went for days without speaking to anyone,” says the retired stained-glass artist. Then she spotted Rafi on a pet-rescue website.
The cat was a seven-hour drive away, so Felicity asked members of a local Facebook group for help and soon had several offers to pick Rafi up. “I hadn’t known anyone, but now everyone knew me,” she says. “People stopped me in the street, asking, ‘Has she arrived? How is she doing?’ Rafi had become a real talking point!”
Rafi has certainly transformed Felicity’s life. When she became ill last winter, her cat was by her side. “It made the world of difference,” she says. While she felt she’d be a burden if she asked neighbours for help, they insisted on checking up on Rafi. Visitors fed the cat, keeping Felicity company, too. And they haven’t stopped coming.
“A friend has started to film her tricks, which I’ve put on YouTube. Locals ask how they can train their cat not to jump on the kitchen counter. I don’t know about that, but it opens the way for a conversation.”
HOW TO ADOPT A DOG
Blue Cross helps to rehome all sorts of animals, from dogs and cats to rabbits and horses, and supports owners who can’t afford vet bills. Mindful that access can be a problem for rural pet owners, it is exploring options to offer vet consultations over the phone.
Cats Protection helps 200,000 cats and kittens a year by rehoming them and providing their owners with financial assistance for their care.
Give a Dog a Bone gives financial support to anyone over 60 who longs for a pet but is struggling to afford one. It also runs two spaces in Scotland, where over-60s (including those without a pet) can drink tea and stroke dogs.
The Kennel Club offers advice on buying, training and looking after both pedigrees and cross-breeds. It also runs a dog fair, an agility festival and, of course, Crufts.
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