The coronavirus pandemic is modifying our relationship with pets.
In India, the beginning of the pandemic saw a widespread phenomenon of abandoning pet animals. Most families made this decision due to misinformation, fear-mongering and irresponsible articles and hoardings, which claimed animals could spread the coronavirus. Although a few animals have been testing positive for Covid-19, the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated unequivocally that there is still no evidence they can transmit the disease to humans.
Since the pandemic, the number of abandonment cases has sky-rocketed, according to Deepa Talib, chairperson of The Anubis-Tiger Foundation, an organisation that works on finding homes for abandoned dogs in Mumbai. She says, “The rates of abandonment have gone up exponentially with the corona crisis…. We have people thinking that dogs and cats spread corona, so we don’t want animals in the house. We also have breeders giving up their dogs, because there are no buyers.”
Given the state of the economy, the pay-cuts and unemployment faced by the masses, one might speculate that the financial crunch faced by families also has a role to play in this mass abandonment.
Adopting to the times
The pandemic is proving to be a distressing time for pets who have suddenly lost their homes, as well as for animals who live on the street. The deserted roads and absence of hawkers have left street animals without any source of food. Taronish Bulsara, co-founder and president of World For All, an animal-welfare NGO, pointed out, “The Animal Birth Control programme, which controls the street dog population, is not operational throughout the country. This is leading to a lot of animals being born on the streets…. Access to vets and medication for animals, too, is more difficult during the pandemic.”
At the same time, both organisations reported that there was a noticeable increase in the number of people looking to adopt or foster pets, because now they were home more often, and hence had more time to train the animals and care for them.
The increase in pet adoption is not simply an Indian phenomenon but is being noticed elsewhere in the world as well. In the UK, the price for purchasing a pet dog has increased to levels that have been described as ‘extortionate’. In New York and Los Angeles, there has been a 500 per cent increase in applicants interested in fostering animals. In fact, The New York Times has even published a guide for first-time pet owners who have acquired pets during the lockdown. In India, articles have been published on how people feeling isolated in lockdown are adopting ‘long-distance’ pets whose upkeep they pay for and even do video calls with.
A mutual tie
A deeper analysis of this phenomenon reveals that this tendency may be related to the manner in which humans cope, even in the most difficult and uncertain times. It’s been established that this pandemic is a recipe for a global mental health crisis. In addition to grappling with isolation and economic uncertainty, there’s collective anxiety about contracting the virus, all of which contribute to psychological distress and can result in an increase in the number and severity of mental health concerns faced by people. A report in The National Herald said that online mental health consultations in India have increased by 180 per cent since the outbreak of the coronavirus.
It’s possible that during their time in lockdown, people are re-discovering the mental health benefits of keeping pets. Physical contact, warmth and companionship provided by pets help in mitigating feelings of isolation and loneliness. In fact, animals have been recognised as therapeutic since the 1800s, when Florence Nightingale observed that pets helped reduce anxiety in children and adults living in psychiatric institutions.
Research has proven time and again that keeping pet animals can have a positive impact on the owner’s mental health, since they alleviate feelings of depression, worry and irritability. Pets also have a preternatural ability to provide emotional support in an intuitive manner during times of distress.
The biophilia hypothesis is one explanation for why animals are therapeutic since it posits that humans have an innate tendency to be drawn towards nature. Creatures with ‘baby-like’ features particularly draw our attention and elicit our affection. This, in fact, serves an evolutionary purpose for animals, as it helps them forge bonds with humans. Puppies around 6-8 weeks of age, which is when their mothers stop feeding them and they need to rely on humans or their environment for survival, have been rated most appealing by humans .
This social bond is also facilitated by the love and happiness hormone, oxytocin, which has been found to increase in both dogs and their owners after they look in each other’s eyes.
The long run
While the mental health benefits and company provided by pets may seem reason enough to adopt an animal during the pandemic, experts have warned against impulsively taking in animals without learning how to care for them, or without recognising that adopting a pet is a long-term, effortful commitment. They need to be taken care of after the pandemic too, and when people start going back to work and schools.
Evidence indicates that the relationship between humans and animals have existed since before 12,000 B.C. and it’s clear that our connection with them is fraught with complexity, equal parts care and cruelty.
As the world around us morphs into something unrecognisable, it seems natural for us to rely on our instincts, for people all over the world to want to reach for comfort in bonds that have existed between pets and their human-families since before the beginning of time.
Farah Maneckshaw is an independent journalist and psychologist who works at Ummeed Child Development Center.