How lockdown sparked a national love affair with pets

Many families have expanded in recent months. Their new additions have fur and four legs
August 28, 2020

While recent talk of a lockdown-induced baby boom looks set to prove as mistaken as any early-days Covid conjecturing, many families have nonetheless expanded in recent months. The new additions they’ve welcomed bear names like Bella, Poppy and Alfie, and their needs will likely have infringed on sleep and freedoms, demanding altered routines and a sizeable chunk of cash down the line. What they won’t ever do is leave home and start their own families, because they are family members of the four-legged variety.

A couple of years ago, it was estimated that 44 per cent of UK households owned pets, among them some nine million dogs and eight million cats. The indications are that these figures will have leapt up in 2020. By May, it was reported that the nation was in the grip of a puppy shortage, and in July, insurers Bought By Many reported a 205 per cent year-on-year increase in policies for cats.

I understand the impulse. Back in March, I called my mum to ask if she could accommodate a rabbit hutch for us. We don’t have any outdoor space and—keenly aware of all that was about to be put on hold for my daughter—I was longing to give her an animal companion. And yes, I’ll admit it: with the world seeming more alarming by the hour, I wouldn’t have minded a cuddle with a soft furry creature myself.

My own childhood featured a menagerie of pets, though they weren’t always suited to the role. There was the battle-scarred ginger tomcat, who tried to smother me as an infant; a wild-eyed, untameable Samoyed Border Collie mix who the neighbourhood kids were convinced was a wolf; and adorable dwarf rabbits who proved too fragile to withstand the gusts of an East Anglian winter. In the end, my sister and I acquired guinea pigs, and when they turned out to be boy and girl, a dynasty was born. We sent them postcards from our holidays, threw them birthday parties, and attempted a boating adventure on our minuscule garden pond (guinea pigs, it turns out, are not natural sailors, or swimmers).

Here’s the thing, though: aside from when we were very little, I don’t believe we thought of our animals as being part of the family: they were a family of their own. This was the 1980s and to us—committed vegetarians who would stop to rescue stranded worms after a rainstorm—our pets were possessions, plain and simple.

But thinking of animals as family members isn’t entirely new: on the 1911 census forms, some respondents included their pets when listing members of the family. What is new is the marketing-boosted prevalence of the concept. On the 2011 census forms, for instance, 16 per cent of dog owners included their pet, some going as far as listing them as “children.” A few years ago, one in six Britons claimed to consider their pet more important than their cousin, and a large number of humans would choose to be cast away on a desert island with their cat or dog rather than their significant other. (Then again, why choose? You could do as Elizabeth Hoad did last year live on breakfast telly and marry your pet.)

Is this a positive development? Given that hundreds of thousands of species are currently at risk of extinction, it seems curiously beside the point. And it’s not as if we’ve succeeded in banishing cruelty from the lives of domesticated critters, either. In 2017, the RSPCA investigated more than 400 allegations of animal mistreatment each day. No, the real beneficiary of our urge to humanise our animal companions seems to be the UK’s multi-billion-pound pet care industry, with its “paw-dicures” and custom-blend treats.

Increasingly, there’s a self-interested streak to our love for our pets. The idea that interacting with animals can be good for human health is such an enticing field of study that there’s now a word for it: zooeyia. Call me a cynic but it seems part of the same human instinct that’s helped push animals from Amur leopards to Yangtze finless porpoises, onto the endangered list—the instinct to see the world and everything in it as existing for our benefit.

As for the recentrush to welcome tail-wagging members to the clan, for me, it seemsrelatedtotheweight of dutythatcomeswithbelonging to a family; whether you’re a daughter or mother, a brother or stepfather, there’s always a feeling you could be doing more. Lately, with the family spotlit as society’s main unit of care and succour, that sense of falling short has been magnified; the temptation may be to outsource it to another species. Rather than projecting human characteristics—and roles—onto an animal, we might do better to acknowledge our own limitations. We can’t be everything to everyone in our family, and neither can the dog.