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Has COVID-19 changed our relationship with pets and other animals?

happy dog cross cat
Dogs have loved it. Cats have hated it. Fish may not have noticed. But many humans have relied on their pets to get them through the last through months.
Whilst lockdown has provided temporary benefits for many companion animals and highlighted their importance in human societies, coronavirus has also provided a societal pause to think more widely about the conditions under which novel diseases can emerge. We need to understand how we can change to provide a more sustainable future for both humans and animals, says Dr Rebekah Fox from Warwick’s Department of Sociology.

When faced with a frightening new disease and a global pandemic, many people have turned to their pets for support.

A recent survey by the Waltham foundation found that 86% of respondents felt they had bonded more with their animals since being in lockdown, whilst 60% thought their pet had helped them maintain a regular routine and 43% said that their animal had reduced their anxiety. This positive effect may be especially important for people living alone or shielding.

For those working from home, 58% said that their companion animal had boosted their productivity and motivation, whilst 12% revealed they spoke to their pet about their workload or colleagues.

Part of the family

Pet animals have become an increasingly important part of everyday human identities and lives in recent years. Over 41% of UK households own at least one pet and there are now over nine million dogs and more than seven million cats living in the UK. Ownership has doubled since the 1960s.

Studies show that during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries our attitudes towards pet animals have also changed. New forms of post-modern relationships have emerged that have transformed “pets” into “companion animals” and “owners” into “caretakers”. Companion animals are increasingly integrated in the home, with many people regarding them as established members of the family.

Over £5.4 billion is now spent in the UK per year on pet-related products and services, including food and accessories, grooming, walking and veterinary care. As the internet has taken over our lives, we see social media filled with Instagram Cats, Dogs of Twitter and hamsters with their own Facebook pages.

Although some go a little over the top, our love for our pets has a mutual benefit. There is a wealth of literature on the health benefits of pet ownership. Having a pet has been linked to the lowering of blood pressure, improved recovery from heart surgery, lower levels of obesity, improved mental health and increased social interaction and sense of community.

A period of adjustment

During the pandemic, the importance of pets and animals to mental and physical health has been recognised in law, both in the UK and abroad. Vets have remained open as essential services. In France, ‘adopting an animal’ was listed as one of the few permitted reasons for leaving home during the lockdown period. In Spain, dog walking was allowed, whilst children were confined to their homes for 45 days and there were reports of people borrowing neighbours’ dogs in order to escape their apartments. In the UK early in lockdown, dog walking was also listed as an acceptable form of daily exercise and many dogs have benefitted from additional walks and quality time with their owners which is often impossible in everyday life. Indeed, it has been widely reported that pets are the ‘true winners’ of lockdown, with owners home all day providing extra cuddles, treats and entertainment.

However, while some have thrived on extra attention, others have not. Social media is full of memes of happy dogs and disgruntled cats, whilst others show how pets have been distracting owners from work or interrupting Zoom meetings.

Animal charities have raised concerns that pets may be stressed by changes of routine and busier households, put on weight because of extra meals and find it difficult to adjust as lockdown eases and people begin to return to work. Advice suggests maintaining a regular routine, giving animals space and ‘quiet time’ and gradually reintroducing periods away from the family to avoid a ‘ticking time bomb’ of separation anxiety as life slowly returns to normal.

Panic-buying pets

The pandemic has not only affected existing pets and their owners. With huge swathes of the workforce confined to the home, many people have decided that now is the perfect time to acquire a furry companion.

The Kennel Club have seen a 180% increase in enquiries from potential dog owners whilst the RSPCA has seen a 600% increase in visits to its puppy fostering pages and pet insurance providers have noted a 78% increase in people registering new pets in the week prior to UK lockdown. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home in London saw a surge in interest, resulting in the rehoming of 86 dogs and 69 cats, an increase of over 100% for both types of animal compared with the same week last year.

This rush to get a pet has had negative consequences. In May the Financial Times reported that the UK is facing a puppy shortage, with breeders’ waiting lists full and prices doubling. This has fuelled an increase in puppy farming, dog theft and smuggling of animals from abroad. There have been reports of scams involving people paying deposits for animals online that they never receive or being forced to hand over extra sums of money when they go to pick up their new pet.

Abandoned in the new normal

The Dogs Trust have temporarily rebranded their famous slogan, ‘A dog is for life, not just for lockdown’, over concerns that puppies may be rehomed as people begin to return to work and realise the true responsibility.

According to the PDSA it costs between £4,500 to £13,000 to look after a dog over its lifetime, with additional funds needed for medical care. There have already been cases of animals being returned or abandoned and charities fear that financial problems due to impending economic crisis and redundancies may increase this.

The RSPCA has received around 1,600 reports of abandoned animals since the start of lockdown – averaging around 40 a day. In addition there is also a potential ‘kitten crisis’ in the pipeline with the Cats Protection League estimating that an extra 84,000 kittens could be born this summer due to vets carrying out fewer routine neutering procedures during the pandemic.

Animal charities themselves are facing a 50% shortfall in funding due to suspension of normal fundraising opportunities, coupled with rising numbers of animals in their care and the pausing of normal rehoming procedures (although many have adapted to this through the use of technology for virtual visits). Similarly, many other animal related businesses have suffered, including dog trainers and walkers, groomers and cat sitters, who have all been unable to carry out their services due to social distancing regulations; many fear they may not fully recover.

Animals and COVID-19

Early in the pandemic there were reports of pets being abandoned in Wuhan over fears that they could transmit the virus. There is mild evidence that animals can contract the virus from humans, with two dogs testing positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus in Hong Kong and isolated incidents of cats testing positive in Belgium, Hong Kong and New York, and now the UK. Four tigers and three lions tested positive at New York City’s Bronx Zoo. A study by the University of Madison-Wisconsin and University of Tokyo found that cats can pass the virus to other felines without showing symptoms.

Current government advice states that there is "no evidence of coronavirus circulating in pets or other animals in the UK and there is nothing to suggest animals may transmit the disease to humans", but offers advice to pet owners to mitigate any risk of passing the virus by not touching or stroking pets from other households and washing hands regularly and always before and after touching your own pet animals.

However new evidence shows that over a million mink on fur farms in the Netherlands, Denmark and Spain have been infected with the virus, with over 100,000 to be culled on a farm in Spain where 87% of the animals tested positive. The mink are believed to have been infected by workers on the farms, but there have also been suspected cases of animal to human transmission, fuelling fears that fur farms could be reservoirs for the disease which could spill over into humans and other species.

A new respect for wild animals

More broadly though, the pandemic raises questions of our wider relationships with animals, with prominent naturalist Jane Goodall declaring that ‘humanity will be finished’ if we fail to adapt our treatment of animals in response to the coronavirus crisis. She blamed the emergence of Covid-19 on the over-exploitation of the natural world and our absolute disrespect for both wild and farmed animals.

Covid-19 is believed to have emerged in a ‘wet market’ in Wuhan, where live animals are sold for slaughter, with scientists suggesting that the disease ‘jumped’ the species barrier to humans.

Zoonotic diseases are nothing new but are occurring with increasing frequency in recent decades. Ebola, HIV, avian influenza and SARS are all a result of human proximity to animals due to destruction of natural habitats and industrial farming practices. ‘Mad cow disease’ which emerged in the UK in the 1990s was linked to the feeding of processed bone meal products from sheep to cattle, who are natural herbivores.

The coronavirus crisis provides us with an opportunity to rethink our lifestyles and consider our relationships with the natural world. Lockdown has provided temporary benefits for many pets and highlighted their social, emotional and economic importance to us. But if we are true animal lovers, we also need to think more widely about the conditions under which diseases like COVID-19 emerge and how we can change in order to provide a more sustainable future for both humans and animals.

Published:

3 August 2020

About:

Dr Rebekah FoxDr Rebekah Fox is a cultural geographer in the Department of Sociology at Warwick.

Her research centres on the importance of animals in everyday social and cultural life, including practices of love and care, intimate spaces of the home and family, responsibility, medical treatment of animals, pedigree pet-breeding and showing, migration, animals in public space and more recently on changing cultures of pet-keeping during the late twentieth / early twenty-first century.

She is currently a Research Fellow on the Leverhulme-funded project 'Shaping human-animal connectedness: Training cultures and the emergence of new forms of human-animal relations.

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