(First published as part of the Aitken Alexander isolation series in April, 2020.)
I was drinking a morning coffee in the sunshine when I noticed him. Splayed out on the grass. Limbs akimbo. Without a care in the world.
He’d found the sunniest spot in our London garden and was absorbing every irradiated ounce of vitamin D available to him.
I couldn’t help but smile. It was a masterclass in mindfulness. An object lesson in opportunism. But then it struck me. He was right. It was a particularly lovely morning. We all had to make the most of it.
I put down my cup, lay on the lawn and joined him.
“You’ve caught the sun,” my wife said when I returned, flushed, to the house half an hour later.
“Just been lying on the grass with Jazz.”
“Lying on the grass? With our cat?”
She shook her head quietly then walked away with a shrug.
“Whatever gets you through the day I guess.”
Our daily lives have become a search for silver linings. A downward tick in an infection rate. An epidemiological insight. I saw a sliver of hope last week when I read that, prior to the lockdown, Battersea Cats and Dogs Home found themselves so overwhelmed with applications they had to halt new adoptions. On Sunday March 22nd, the day before we were told to remain in our homes, 1,200 people offered to take in cats and dogs, a record unmatched in their 160 year history. It cheered me not just for the sake of the assorted waifs and strays who now find themselves well loved, fed and exercised in a secure home. It made me more optimistic that we will weather the storm. We have called in the feline and canine cavalry.
The physical and mental health benefits of keeping a cat or a dog – or a budgie, hamster, rabbit or tortoise for that matter – are well known. According to America’s national health authority, the CDC, pet ownership is associated with a decrease in blood pressure as well as cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Most importantly in light of the current crisis, they also alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness.
But their benefits extend beyond even this, I think.
For children, for example, they can offer lessons in responsibility and proto-parenting. The discipline of looking after a cat or dog is worth learning. When they were younger, long before we had Jazz, my kids earned pocket money in return for cleaning out their budgie’s tray. It must have been south London’s most immaculate birdhouse.
At this particular moment, I suspect our pet’s even greater gift is to provide the pleasures that are denied us. Companionship, of course. A tactile friendship devoid of the need to distance. (We should probably ignore the scaremongering about cats and dogs passing COVID on to us.) In particular, they deliver us a sense of routine, some shape to our Groundhog Day-existence. Friends talk of the hedonistic highpoint that is their daily walk to the park or heath. Within my own home, where my wife, daughter and I are in lockdown, feeding and watering Jazz now represents a welcome landmark within the day. He’s become a boon to all three of us.
Best of all, of course, our pets provide moments of indulgence, playfulness and – oh joy – escape. “Time spent with cats is never wasted,” said Sigmund Freud. An hour curled up on the sofa with Jazz while reading a book or watching a movie now feels more precious than pearls. How blissful must it be to spend half an hour focussed entirely on a dog’s pursuit of a well-chewed ball?
There are those who wonder whether this will fade, whether we will soon complain that a pet is for life not just for coronavirus? I really doubt it. I think we will look back on this time and sanctify the things that got us through. Not just the nurses, cleaners, doctors and ancillary NHS workers, the steadying hands on the tiller, the already familiar list of key workers. We’ll also thank those who lifted our spirits, who calmed our nerves, who simply stayed at our side and steered us around these treacherous waters. I have a suspicion our pets will figure prominently on that roll of honour. I know Jazz will.