The animals in our lives
Like many people, the turn of the new year sparks a contemplative time for me and this year I’m reflecting on the ways that I’m thankful for my family.
Yes, January can be gloomy, but for those of us who share our lives with animal companions, the richness of these relationships can bolster us through those difficult times. I’m part of a WhatsApp group of researchers and so many of posts recently shared are images of companion animals and nature. Despite the group being both culturally and geographically diverse, these shared images appear to galvanise people from all over the world into connecting with each other.
It struck me that for many of us, the animals in our lives are so important to our sense of self, our identities and our social connectedness with the rest of the world.
Much research from the field of human-animal interactions reveals the pivotal role that many companion species play in our social lives. Dogs for example, may have a social buffering effect, supporting and facilitating humans to connect with other humans. I think this is what happens in my WhatsApp group. Sharing photos of our companions and of the beautiful places we have visited in nature helps us connect with each other. These images act as a kind of social lubricant and focus point for geographically different people to draw conversations around. Even for those who don’t share their lives directly with a companion animal, images of nature seem to have a unifying effect.
Of course, animals are so much more than just the providers of fertile soil to better connect us with our own species. For many people who choose to share their lives with other animals, the relationships that develop inside those multispecies family are treasured. Such relationships can become protective against life’s challenges and noted human struggles like loneliness, low mood and anxiety. But importantly, they also help us to appreciate some of the similar wants, needs and perspectives of our animal friends. By spending time caring for other animals, we start to recognise that support is a two-way process. We give some and we get some.
When my greyhound Moose needed an emergency amputation after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer at the start of 2020, I was faced with the anxious decision of him either losing his leg or losing his life. Although I can be a worrier and a ruminator, Moose is, by contrast, an optimist. So he obviously chose life! Caring for Moose during this time of his recovery really helped me to appreciate life from a different angle. For even in the most difficult moments, we can still find connection with our beloveds. Prior to his amputation, Moose and I conducted our relationship at 100 mph. Moose is an outdoorsy type and loves nothing more than exploring and generally investigating life. Though his conditioning as an (ex) racing greyhound means I always have to be careful, as his drive to chase moving things is on a hair trigger. At times, living with Moose has felt like being on the spin dry cycle of a washing machine! The ups and downs of our life together has inspired my writing to better understand the lives and experiences of dogs like him.
Yet caring for Moose since his amputation has taught me some of the ways that life can be enjoyed at a slower speed. He has helped me to recognise that life is sometimes a bit wonky, but that those things that matter to me also seem to matter to him too; trusted relationships, feeling safe, having fun… oh and good food! And that when we have these things, we can flourish (even on 3 legs!)
The 5 Ways to Wellbeing teaches us that we can improve our own wellbeing when we reach out and offer support to others. Our relationships with animals and nature are one way in which we can ‘give’ in this way. That doesn’t mean that we all have to go out and acquire a companion animal. Caring for those others who share our planet could mean appreciating the uniqueness of those wild plants and animals we encounter in nature. Or helping a relative or friend with the care needs of their own animal companions. Giving more could simply mean that we start to taker a deeper interest in the lives and experiences of our fellow creatures who already share our existence on Earth.
Kerry is a Wellbeing Practitioner at Valley Steps and part time PhD student in Anthrozoology. These two aspects of her life coalesce through her efforts to support people to more consciously connect with the world around them. Kerry spends a lot of time thinking about the health and wellbeing of both humans and animals. Her life, shared with her ex-racing greyhounds – all of whom have experienced some level of personal struggle – often inspires and shapes her musings on what it means to be in the world caring for ourselves and others.