Paws for thought
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Paws for thought

From InterAction 104, spring 2020

Pets are rewarding but come with lots of responsibility. This can be especially challenging when you have M.E., as Action for M.E. colleague Alice Wilcox reports. We asked you to tell us about your experiences of owning a pet and were inundated with responses.

Although we have always been a nation of animal lovers, the popularity of pets has exploded in recent years. The increase in social media has certainly played its part, packed full of funny, cute animal videos, heart-warming stories of animal rescues and examples of the joys of pet ownership.

However, we often only see an edited version portraying very specific moments from people’s lives.

Deciding to invite a furry, feathered or scaly friend into your life is a big decision for anyone and often more so for someone with a disability or chronic illness such as M.E. Not only do we have to consider the additional commitment, but we also have to weigh up the potential impact on our health.

On Instagram, George said his dogs act as a lifeline: “The only thing that keeps me going is my dogs. I know they rely on me and consequently no matter how bad I am, I have to think of their needs and they give me so much back. They should be prescribed on the NHS! Yes, I put myself through the pain to look after them because they give me so much in return – and long may that continue.”

It is well documented that owning a pet can have a huge range of health benefits, from lowering your risk of heart disease, improving overall physical health and lowering levels of the stress hormone (cortisol). The Waltham Petcare Science Institute provides an interesting booklet which reviews some of the research covering human-animal interactions and potential benefits of owning a pet.

Pets also offer companionship and often play a vital role in combating loneliness and isolation (81% of cat owners surveyed for the PDSA Paw Report said their cat made them feel less lonely).

Roz Fagan said people who felt an animal was too much responsibility could opt for a lower maintenance pet: “I bought myself a budgie because I was getting very low because of losing my job due to M.E. and because I woke every morning feeling so ill. I was starting to not want to get up in the morning (beginnings of depression I think). I’d had budgies before and knew I could manage one (no ‘walkies’ etc)... and I would have to get up each morning... it worked!” The benefits humans get from interactions with pets may also explain the surge in animal social media posts online. Playing with a dog or stroking a cat can cause humans to produce increased levels of the love hormone oxytocin which may help to explain why so many of us can’t resist watching those cute cat videos online.

Some pets can also provide much needed functional support to their human companions, including guide dogs, medical detection dogs and therapy pets. Pets are hugely important figures in our lives and the relationships we form with them become incredibly valuable.

So what do our pets need?

UK vet charity PDSA has worked with YouGov to produce their annual Paw Report every year since 2011. They estimate that one in four owners (26%) are unaware of the Animal Welfare Act and the five animal welfare needs it covers to:

  • live in a suitable environment
  • have a suitable diet
  • be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  • be housed with, or apart from, other animals
  • be protected from pain, suffering, injury or disease.

  • People with M.E. have to prioritise their needs constantly and often adjust plans according to their symptoms. The fluctuating nature of M.E. and also the post-exertional malaise we experience means managing M.E. alongside daily tasks and other commitments such as your partner, family/friends and work (if you are well enough) can be very difficult. Deciding to take on the additional responsibility of a pet is a big decision and one that deserves considerable thought.

    The difference between pets and the other commitments in our lives is that they are completely dependent on us as the main caregiver. They have their own needs and as a result of years of domestication they are completely reliant on us to ensure those needs are met so they can live happy, healthy and fulfilling lives.

    Nicky Thompson said her two dogs are great company but she is concerned they’re not getting the exercise they need: “I used to walk them for an hour a day before I got ill, now all they get is a 20 min lead walk every other day, as my husband is ill too. I feel really guilty about it. Although on the upside for them, they always have someone at home now.

    “The financial side is difficult, I make sure paying their insurance is a priority, and we do a pet health plan to cover vaccinations and worm/flea treatment, it all adds up. But I absolutely wouldn’t be without them.”

    Kate Whittaker described her dogs as “therapy” dogs. “They make me happy and are my constant companions. I do have family who do the brunt of the walking though, and truthfully there are times when it feels like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I love them dearly but would think very hard in the future about effort involved.”

    Jacqueline on Instagram said: “I had my pets before I got sick, a dog and two cats. While they bring me unending love and companionship, which is crucial now that I’m housebound, if it weren’t for my husband, I wouldn’t be able to give them a good life anymore. He brings in the salary that pays for their food and vet bills, not me anymore. He walks the dog because I’m no longer able, which really breaks my heart because walks with my Ava used to be the highlight of our day. It’s such precious bonding time. If one lives alone and can afford a pet, I’d suggest a cat or an older dog that doesn’t need as much exercise. But again, this all depends on how much support one has as we simply can’t be relied on 100% with this illness.”

    Pets are incredibly intuitive and emotionally sensitive (a study carried out in 2016 by Dr Kun Guo from the University of Lincoln’s School of Psychology confirmed that dogs can recognise both canine and human emotions). However, they are unable to communicate with us on a level that allows us to explain why our M.E. means they missed their afternoon walk or understand that dinner is late because we needed to rest. It’s a frustrating truth, because I suspect that if we could explain the impact of our M.E. to our animal companions, many of them would be more understanding and accommodating than some of the humans in our lives.

    Any prospective pet owner has a responsibility to consider the needs of any pet they may bring into the home, including which type of pet might be a good fit for your life. It can be incredibly tempting to rehome the adorable six-month old puppy that you fell in love with, however impulse decisions when it comes to choosing a pet are rarely successful. Will that cute pup need a lot of walking? Is that practical? Consider your non-negotiables and your must-haves carefully.

    Ruth Lloyd told us: “Choosing dogs who needed love but not lots of exercise means they and we (husband is also disabled) are ideally matched. My dogs are my lifeline really, they give me a reason to push myself on, but also, they seem to know when I should rest.”

    You might be surprised at how demanding certain animals are. Goldfish, for example, are fairly resilient, if not particularly interactive. Cleaning out a goldfish tank correctly can be very labour-intensive and aquatic equipment can be expensive.

    Anything in a hutch or cage needs to be cleaned regularly and interacted with on a daily basis: smaller does not always mean easier. I made this mistake myself when I was very unwell and underestimated the physical requirements to look after my rats, and although I think they make fantastic pets they were not the right choice for me or my M.E. at that time. I now have two cats, Bitz and Bobz. The PDSA found that 62% of dog owners and 88% of cat owners underestimated the monthly costs of owning a pet.

    Younger animals may need training; how to greet humans/other animals, toilet training etc. and will often require more exercise. However, that is not to say that older animals – and particularly dogs – don’t need to be exercised or have enrichment opportunities. Older animals may have developed challenging behavioural habits, and the expense of pet ownership tends to increase as your companion requires more frequent visits to the vets as they age.

    Making a decision

    Always seek professional advice. Speak to your local vet or animal shelter and ask for advice and information about which pets may be suitable for you and your lifestyle. It can be helpful to have conversations with family and friends about your decision. Your health may be relatively stable at the moment but what happens if you have an M.E. crash? Or want to go away on holiday or are admitted into hospital will someone be able to help? If your income decreased would you still be able to afford to support your pet and make sure they had everything they needed? How would you feel and what would the impact be if you had to make the decision to rehome your pet due to your health or if they become sick?

    Julia Ledger Hill has some great advice when considering a new companion: “Before we got our dog, we borrowed someone’s dog of the same breed to see if it would work for us as a family. We had this dog to stay for a couple of weekends which really confirmed this breed was good for us & helped us think through the practicalities.”

    Choosing to share your life with a pet is an incredibly personal decision and ultimately only you will know whether it’s the right one for you. Acknowledging that your health may mean you are unable to care for a pet can be upsetting. However, there may be ways you can still enjoy the companionship pets can offer. If your health allows, you could ask your friends, family or neighbours if they need you to pet sit, even if just for a few hours. You may want to contact your local animal shelter and explore options to foster animals short-term if and when your health allows.

    If you already have a pet, it’s worth looking at some of the different pet gadgets available to help make looking after your pet a little easier such as food bowls which dispense food at pre-programmed time, water fountains or long armed poop scoops. Laser pens can also be a great way to play with pets with minimal expenditure of energy. You can find specially designed pet care aids at Ability Superstore (see below).

    If you can’t take on a pet, you may wish to connect with the wild animals in your area: this could include clear bird feeders which stick on to windows or even a camera in a nesting box which allows you to live stream images straight from your garden. You may also have a local organisation which provides therapy pets who would be willing to visit you in your home.

    This proved an ideal solution for Heather Abdelli: “My “pets” are wild birds that I feed, water and planted a garden for over the 19 years that we’ve been here. I buy the bird food in bulk online so it is delivered. I store it near to my front door in a pile of plastic tubs. This keeps the cost down to below half of the cheapest I could buy it at the shops with the added bonus of not having to carry it home!

    “I see scores of birds, and they feed very close to my front window. I sit looking out of my lounge when I’m resting. Almost as good as meditation for someone who struggles with the real thing!”

    Useful contacts

    Ability Superstore

    Pet care aids such as a no bend dog bowl and arms-length pooper scooper. Also offers various daily living aids and specialist care equipment. For more information call them at 0161 850 0884 or visit their website.


    UK veterinary charity which offers free and low-cost care to sick and injured pets. You can find their latest Paw Report on their website or contact 0800 917 2509 for more information.


    Recues and cares for needy animal. Their website offers advice, welfare, hints and tips for animal owners.

    The Waltham Petcare Science Institute

    Focuses on the nutritional and behavioural needs of pets and preventative health. For more information visit their website here.

    Some of these organisations also offer information and advice for looking after your pet during the Coronavirus outbreak.

    From InterAction 104, published April 2020