Every morning Indian expat Nehal (she goes by one name) wakes up to the mewing of her two pet cats Ricky and Winter as they playfully try to get her out of bed. As she proceeds to prepare breakfast, seven paws rush eagerly towards the dinner bowl.

Seven, you ask? That’s because one-year-old Ricky’s right hind leg is paralysed.

Abandoned at the Dubai-based Red Paw Foundation, Ricky the Arabian Mau was limping when he was found. Later, the authorities found that he was involved in an accident, which resulted in the paralysis. When Nehal, who used to volunteer for the foundation, fostered him in August last year, little did she know she would fall in love with him.

The 23-year-old landed her first job as a recruiter this March. While shifting to her studio apartment and facing the work-from-home situation, she knew she needed a friend to combat her loneliness – and Ricky seemed to be the perfect companion.

Nehal joins a bandwagon of people to have adopted pets during the Covid-19 isolation. Many adoption centres in the UAE have recorded a sharp rise in the number of fosters and adoptions since the pandemic. The Stray Dogs Centre UAQ witnessed a quadruple increase in fosters and double the adoptions during this period. Smuro, a Dubai-based welfare foundation, sees up to 14 adoptions in two weeks (as opposed to barely two adoptions in a month in the pre-Covid period).

Apart from their inherent cuteness, what makes pets such ideal companions is the unconditional love they offer.

Juan van Wyk, clinical psychologist at The Lighthouse Arabia Centre for Wellbeing, says the joys that come with sharing lives with companion animals are manifold. “Pet lovers can rightfully say that the pleasure of snuggling up to a furry friend is immeasurable. Researchers have explored the benefits of the human-animal bond, especially among isolated or lonely individuals like the elderly. Caring for an animal can also enhance your sense of purpose or meaning and add real joy and unconditional love to your life.”

Caring for an animal can enhance your sense of purpose or meaning, says clinical psychologist Juan van Wyk

For Nehal, looking after Ricky brought a unique sense of responsibility and companionship she had never felt before. Ricky’s paralysed leg affected his quality of life and he couldn’t use the litter box properly or run around like normal cats. He was timid and would get scared easily. “With the help of the foundation, I got the leg amputated (the vet very kindly gave me a discount) and after he recuperated, he was a completely different cat. Earlier he used to be shy and scared; now he is outgoing and friendly,” she says.

Pets and the pandemic

Through the past few months in which Covid-19 took over social lives, Dr Van Wyk has noticed an increase in the prevalence of depression, anxiety, impairment in cognitive functioning (concentration, focus and memory), worsening of chronic health problems, substance abuse or other impulsive behaviour and relationship problems, marked by frequent arguments, irritability and frustration, amongst his patients.

He asserts that the most significant mental health predicament of Covid-19 is that in this moment when we need each other the most, we are also each other’s biggest “threat” and are being forced apart. “The wearing of the much-needed masks, I believe, further enhances our experience of ‘threat’,” he says.

“When we spend quality time with another person, we experience joy, enhancing our sense of well-being. This is due to limbic resonance, which means our nervous systems are working together to create a state of co-regulation, causing us to feel safe and seen. Studies show that specific brain regions are activated when receiving social rewards, increasing our level of motivation, intrinsic drive and ability to manage stress. However, when we feel lonely certain brain regions associated with distress and rumination are activated instead. These regions are associated with our survival circuitry, making social connection even more difficult and thus creating a downward spiral.”

Having pets can help replicate these social connections and fulfil those social rewards in your life. Pets are also known to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and playfulness and even improve cardiovascular health.

“Pets are acutely attuned to humans and our behaviour and emotions, interpreting our tone of voice, body language, and gestures,” he adds.

Life-changing companions

Nehal is quick to correct the notion that she has helped Ricky with his problems. “It is in fact the other way round. When I feel stressed or moody, just looking at his peaceful face lying beside me provides a positive energy in the room. When we had just moved and things were new and confusing, he could sense my frustration and did silly things just to make me laugh. Sometimes when I feel scared living alone, the fact that he is around gives me great comfort. I don’t know what I would have done in this lockdown period if he wasn’t around. I’d probably have gone mad,” she says.

Sensing that Ricky would like some feline company, two weeks ago Nehal adopted another Arabian Mau, this time a three-month-old kitten. “I named her Winter to get some relief from the summer heat,” she laughs.

Winter had contracted a virus called Panleukopenia at birth, which gave her Wobbler Syndrome, a birth defect that doesn’t allow her to walk straight.

“Most people think that cats with this syndrome are unhealthy, but they are not. They just have a bit of difficulty walking and sometimes land on their bottom. It is the cutest thing to see when she does that,” says Nehal.

What her cats have taught her is an immense compassion for fellow beings. She tends to her pets with utmost care as both have several physical and dietary needs. Ricky has a gum disease that was operated on but still needs care, which means his tooth gel has to be administered twice a day. Winter needs special vitamin supplements with her food.

“Most people ask me why I care for them so much with time and money, since they are just average street cats. But I would like to say that street cats need our love and attention more. People like to adopt Scottish Folds or British Shorthairs just because they look cute. But those cats are widely bred for business purposes, which compromises heavily on their health.

“Also they are not suitable for the hot and humid climate of the UAE. If a local cat can give you the same love and affection, at a fraction of the cost, isn’t it a better option?” she says.

Nehal says cats are very insightful creatures and seem to know your every mood. She advises pet lovers to foster a cat before thinking of adoption because sometimes you just don’t get along. “When a cat finds the right owner, you will feel the love. As cat lovers will testify, you don’t choose a cat but rather the cat chooses you,” she says.

For more info on the Red Paw Foundation, visit www.instagram.com/redpawfoundation.

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