How Ireland has fallen headlong in love with its pets
I’m at the viewing corridor at the dog rehoming centre in Finglas run by Ireland’s largest dog-welfare charity, Dogs Trust. With dogs lined up behind windows on either side of me, it feels a little like a prison visit, albeit at one of those plush Scandinavian prisons. These dogs are very well taken care of. There are big dogs and small dogs, sleek dogs and fluffy dogs. Almost all of them are barking at me. “You’re like the postman to them,” explains public relations and communications manager Corina Fitzsimons. “They don’t know you.”
There has been a huge increase of interest in pet ownership over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. Fitzsimons says that in the past they would have had 70 people filling out their inquiry forms a week. Since lockdown that has been closer to 400 a week. “We’ve had over 7,000 rehoming questionnaires completed since March,” she says.
People were suddenly working at home. The kids were off school. They said, ‘Maybe this is the perfect opportunity to have an animal’
Gillian Bird, education officer at the DSPCA, the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has seen a similar increase in demand for pets. There has even been a reduction in the number of Christmas-bought animals that normally turn up in shelters in the autumn months once they’ve grown beyond the cute stage and people have realised how much effort goes into their care. The DSPCA anticipated the increased interest, she says. “People were suddenly working at home. The kids were off school. They said, ‘Maybe this is the perfect opportunity to have an animal.’”
It’s hard to know when people first started keeping animals as pets. Dogs were domesticated more than 16,000 years ago but for a long time they were largely kept as work animals (and an occasional food source). Cats were domesticated in Egypt about 4,000 years ago, probably for pest-control reasons (and there’s some debate about whether cats are fully domesticated at all).
Pets, unlike these dogs and cats of yore, don’t necessarily do any work and aren’t going to end up being eaten eventually. Having space for furry or feathery freeloaders depends on a certain amount of wealth and societal complexity.
It’s known that 2,000 years ago the Romans kept caged birds and little dogs around the house, though some think the latter may have been rat deterrents. In the last 500 years European royals started having pets appear alongside them in portraits. In the 16th century Michel de Montaigne pre-empted YouTube cat videos with a lovely essay on observing his cat. It’s only in the 19th century that pet ownership becomes an established and not suspect behaviour among not-posh families.
People have proposed that feelings of warmth and tenderness may lead to stress reduction, which is very good for your health and wellbeing. So there’s really good scientific basis for the benefit of pet ownership
Dr Christine McGarrigle of the Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging (Tilda) at TCD has co-authored a report entitled: Associations of pet ownership with health and wellbeing in community-dwelling adults aged 50 years and over in Ireland. She completely understands why pets would be a source of comfort and stress reduction in lockdown.
There is some scientific evidence for why pet ownership is good for people, she says. “There is a sort of physiological mechanism which could explain beneficial effects . . . It’s about tactile interaction which would release the hormone oxytocin which decreases stress and anxiety. People have proposed that feelings of warmth and tenderness may lead to stress reduction, and then that can increase activity in your parasympathetic nervous system which is very good for your health and wellbeing and actually is associated with reduced mortality. So there’s really good scientific basis for how you can see the benefit of pet ownership.”
There’s very little accurate information about how widespread pet ownership is in Ireland, although most people I speak to think that the numbers have risen in recent decades. Gillian Bird from the DSPCA says that she would love to see a pet question added to the census. In the Tilda report, about 5,000 people were surveyed and they found that 45 per cent of adults aged 50 and over owned a pet.
Thirty-eight per cent of those people owned a dog and 21 per cent owned a cat. Interestingly, they found that those who had pets because they loved animals felt a stronger sense of purpose than others but those who had animals “to keep busy or to have something to take care of” actually had lower quality of life; McGarrigle notes that that lower quality of life possibly preceded getting the pet.
“We focused in on the dog ownership because we felt that was the most important,” says McGarrigle. “We found that the people who have pets have much higher levels of physical activity. It also took them out of the house and into the community. They were much more socially active, had much higher social-connection levels and knew much more people. And we know all of those things are really good for health and wellbeing.
“Dog owners were much more likely to report high levels of physical activity but they also had higher grip strength. We have this machine that measures how hard you can grip. What that is is a marker of muscle strength and frailty. We would find that grip strength is associated with much better physical health and a slowdown in mortality in the future. So it’s a really good sign of more successful ageing.”
At the Dogs Trust rehoming centre they are struggling to keep up with thewave of inquiries from prospective dog owners. Most animal-welfare charities would prefer people to adopt rather than buy (though Fitzsimons can recommend one reputable website for buying a pet, called petbond.ie). Pets sold online are not traceable and often come from unethical breeders. “You could put up an ad and say ‘This is a lovely dog that has lived in my family home and would make a good pet’ and you could have 300 dogs living in a shed out the back,” says Fitzsimons. “It’s almost impossible to buy a dog safely.”
Arthur eats everything. He gets so obsessed with tennis balls that he ingests them. So we spend our time having to convince him not to eat tennis balls
There are usually between 130 and 160 dogs at the centre at one time. Some come from pounds where they would otherwise have been killed. Of the 9,103 dogs who entered the Irish pound system last year, 398 were euthanised, a reduction of 45 per cent on the year before. Manyof the other dogs that have ended up with the Dogs Trust were surrendered by their owners. Some have good reasons – illness or inappropriate housing – but Fitzsimons stresses that they don’t judge people.
What they don’t want is people just abandoning their dogs. They tell me about Beans, a recently rehomed dog with a heart condition who was found tied to railings nearby. They’ve seen an increase in people abandoning older dogs with medical conditions. “We don’t know if they’re abandoning them because they don’t have the money or because they’ve got another puppy,” says Fitzsimons. “We think our veterinary bills are going to be huge in 2021. And our fundraising capability has been reduced by Covid.”
Fitzsimons and Eimear Cassidy, the assistant manager of operations at Dogs Trust, introduce me to some of the dogs on the corridor. There’s Balli, a Jack Russell terrier who had been hit by a car. Cassidy and a colleague went to collect her and found a nervous little dog in pain. She’s a lot better now and is soon to go to live with a new family who have been patiently visiting her. “We imagine she had an owner who let her wander,” says Cassidy.
Next door to Balli is Arthur, a surrendered English springer, who, unlike every other dog on the row, has a bed of straw. “That’s because he eats his bedding,” explains Cassidy. “He eats everything. He gets so obsessed with tennis balls that he ingests them. So we spend our time having to convince him not to eat tennis balls.” Cassidy thinks his current behaviour is purely because he’s unsettled. “He wasn’t doing this at home.”
Some of the dogs here have what Cassidy calls “quirks”. All these “quirky dogs”, she says, are perfect for someone somewhere.
Charles, a very fluffy surrendered “terrier mixed with God knows what” seems a little dejected. He’s one of the few dogs that isn’t barking at me. He is called by the very formal name of Charles to distinguish him from another dog called Charley. He’s new here, very obedient and is a dog they will have no problem homing.
Nearby Penny, a pit bull cross, is pulling her bedding out of her bed with her teeth. When she sees us she leaps up to the window with a purple dog toy in her mouth. “She has a lot of personality,” says Cassidy.
Across the corridor sits a lazy-looking pit bull named Butch. “I call him cowdog,” says Cassidy.
Why? “Because he has markings like a [Friesian] cow.”
All of these dogs will eventually find kind owners though some “quirky dogs” require a bit of special care before this is possible. They talk about a long-term resident named Porky who was terrified of all household appliances until staff started bringing him to their homes with them. They were recently sent a photo of him from his new owners in which he’s lying on the couch watching television. “His favourite thing now is watching David Attenborough, ” says Fitzsimons. “He has settled into luxury very well.”
The ongoing task they have at Dogs Trust is to convince people to pick dogs not based on their breed or their age but according to their own lifestyle
Gillian Bird at the DSPCA notes that pets can often be the victim of trends and fashions. “We had the whole thing of everybody wanting huskies when Game of Thrones came out first because they all wanted direwolves. Finding Nemo was a nightmare for clownfish.”
Similarly, the ongoing task they have at Dogs Trust is to convince people to pick dogs not based on their breed or their age but according to their own lifestyle. Both Cassidy and Fitzsimons are big advocates for adopting older dogs. They’ve both done so in the past and found it very rewarding. They bring me out to introduce me to Buster, an older Bernese mountain dog with a lovely gentle temperament, recently surrendered by an elderly farmer who was retiring to a smaller home.
“Such a gentle soft bear,” says Fitzsimons. “But we might struggle a little more to rehome because he’s older.”
I rub Buster’s head and he accepts this tribute, shaking his head and sending some drool flying.
“He’s so chill,” says Cassidy. “He just sits in his kennel like a big bear. We just need someone willing to take on an older, bigger breed who doesn’t mind a lot of slobber.”
“A lot of people are looking for puppies,” says Fitzsimons. “And because a lot of the dog pounds were closed during Covid, there were collie crosses being sold for €400 and €500.”
As a consequence, people haven’t been surrendering puppies as much, she says. “So we’ve actually rehomed 67 per cent more adults this year.”
“[The lockdown] really helped our older dogs,” says Cassidy. “We’ve rehomed so many dogs who would have been overlooked before because people were working and didn’t have time for them. People working from home is ideal for our dogs.”
People often have unrealistic expectations. “We recently had a puppy surrendered,” says Cassidy, “a little 16-week-old staffie-cross that the people bought online for €600. They were told it was chipped and vaccinated but when they called [the seller] to get all the information the phone had been cut off. The puppy was basically surrendered for destroying the house.”
“I think some people think that when you get a puppy that it’s like a blank video that you can decide how this dog going to turn out,” says Fitzsimons. “But if they’ve come from a puppy farm out in a shed, they might have issues as they get older . . . People often have preconceptions. They picture a warm fire and a dog at their feet but then they realise the dog is going to need a huge amount of exercise. And people pick a dog because of what they look like rather than what their life is like.”
Sometimes people think it’s hard to adopt a dog because we ask lots of questions. But if you go to get a dog and they just say, ‘Here you go, thanks,’ that should be a huge red flag
She lists of different factors prospective dog owners should be conscious of. Some dogs are better suited to families with children. More nervous dogs might like a quieter household. More energetic dogs are perfect for hikers. Lazier dogs who like to sleep a lot are perfect for people who are out of the house a lot. “We have a rehoming questionnaire because we want to match the dog to people’s lifestyles. Sometimes people think it’s hard to adopt a dog because we ask lots of questions. But if you go to get a dog and they just say, ‘Here you go, thanks,’ that should be a huge red flag.”
The DSPCA is similarly careful about how they rehome animals. Recently, they’ve begun initiating adoptions with short-term fostering to ensure that the animal and people are a good match. Both the DSPCA and Dogs Trust also currently run online dog training sessions.
Gillian Bird doesn’t worry so much about the animals carefully homed by rescue charities, but she does worry about the future of pandemic pets in general. “People have embraced pets,” says Bird. “They’ve become trendy . . . But I remember seeing it with the previous recession. When things improved and people started going back on holidays or working full time, you saw the animals coming back to the shelter . . . So what happens when things go back to normal and everybody goes back to school and work and people start going away on holidays? What is going to happen to that animal?”