“It’s impossible to overstate how important my pets have been to me” by Caroline Abbott

According to the census and other official records, I live alone. That’s because I’m childfree by choice and for the last three years I’ve also been single by choice. But I’m not really alone – my home is among the 62 percent of UK households that own a pet.

Dogs are the most common pet in the UK, with 34 percent of households having one. I now have two, as last month, I welcomed a rescue dog – who I renamed Alba after the Latin for “white” – to be a canine friend for little Harvey.

Pet positives

I work from home, which can be isolating. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, as Harvey and I have been able to provide each other with constant companionship. But having Alba has been brilliant as the dogs can play together while I’m stuck at my desk.

When work is done, we head out for a walk – something I probably wouldn’t bother to do every day just for myself, so I can credit the dogs for ensuring I get regular exercise. And it’s much easier to strike up conversations with people when you have a dog to break the ice.

At least one stranger on every walk will stop to admire Harvey or Alba or both, and enquire about their breed. It isn’t immediately obvious – Harvey is a Havanese and Maltese cross, while Alba is a Kokoni mix. During the week, we usually walk in our local area. We often see people we’ve seen before, and some I now consider as friends. At weekends, we explore somewhere different, a bit further afield, which makes walks more interesting.

When I didn’t have dogs in my life, I frequently found myself over-thinking, and feeling worried or stressed about things. Looking after a dog keeps your hands busy and your mind occupied. They’re great at keeping you focused on the present instead of dwelling on the past or future.

It’s no wonder that numerous scientific studies have found that pets can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, lower blood pressure, reduce feelings of loneliness and boost mood. Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression. 

That’s not to say that pets are never the cause of stress. But having the occasional puddle on the floor or hole in your jumper is a small price to pay for all the love and joy they bring.

A pet to suit all types

Earlier, I was catching up on the highlights from the world’s most famous dog show, Crufts, and it reminded me how dogs come in all different shapes, sizes, colours and degrees of fluffiness. Everyone has their preferences – I’m drawn to dogs that are like living teddy bears. 

Dogs aren’t for everyone, but pets in general come in an even wider range of attributes. Whatever kind of pet you have, it can make your home feel less empty and improve your well-being.

I spoke to a couple of other people who live alone to find out about their experiences. Jen Deer rents her house and her landlord would only let her have a small pet – so she decided to get a pair of gerbils.

She explained: “When I moved across the UK for a new job, to a place where I didn’t know anybody, it was a very lonely time. It was difficult making friends in a rural location and my mental health began to deteriorate.

“I got two gerbils and it has made such a positive impact on my life. Having another living being rely on you gives you purpose. It’s so nice to talk and play with them. They have even helped me make friends, as colleagues look after them from time to time if I need to travel.”

Alternatives to pet ownership

Anna Owen has her own home but found other things affecting her choices. She said: “I love the idea of a furry friend to keep me company, but in reality I’m out at work in the day and sometimes go to social groups in the evening, so leaving a dog all day doesn’t seem fair. 

“I’ve always loved cats and know they’re more independent. But my neighbour has cats and I’ve seen the dead animals and birds they bring to her house so I’ve been put off. An upside of having a neighbour with cats is they often keep me company when I’m weeding or relaxing in the garden so I get some furry cuddles which really boosts my mood, and I sometimes help out by cat-sitting, so I get the perks of a pet without the unpleasantries and bills.”

Tenancy rules, working hours, space, ability to afford upkeep and many other things can make having a pet a challenge, but there are other options for animal lovers to consider.

You could think about fostering a dog or cat from an animal rescue charity, rather than adopting it, meaning you’d only have it for the short-term. The costs of food and vet treatment are covered by the charity. You could also foster a police dog or guide dog of the future.

You could volunteer for a charity such as The Cinnamon Trust, by walking dogs, transporting pets or fostering pets whose elderly or terminally ill owners have difficulty caring for them.

Or you could use a service such as Borrow My Doggy, which connects dog owners who occasionally need someone to take care of their pet with trusted dog lovers looking to fill the dog void in their life. 

If you’re unable to have animals in your home, you could volunteer at your local animal shelter. The animals at my local RSPCA shelter really appreciate the volunteers who come in to keep them company for a while. 

Final word – and an ask

It’s impossible to overstate how important my pets have been to me – my late dog Ruby gave me a reason to keep going at a time in my life when I was at rock bottom. Now I’m trying to give something back. On April 1, I’m doing a wingwalk – that is, getting strapped to the top of a biplane for a flight over the countryside – to raise money for my local RSPCA shelter. If you’d like to read more about this, and possibly make a donation, you can do so here and both I and the shelter would be extremely grateful.

Caroline Abbott is a freelance journalist based in Devon, UK. She mostly writes about tourism, leisure, entertainment, food and drink  and her number one passion, dogs. When she’s not working, she’s usually out exploring with her two pups, Harvey and Alba.

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