Considered as confidantes and children, pets are woven into the fabric of our lives
Two years ago, sisters Melissa and Laura Hanson decided the time was right to add a new member to their household. The siblings, who grew up having dogs, had work-from-home options at their respective jobs. “It was a given to want to open our home to a dog again,” says Melissa, who manages scholarship programs for the University of Ottawa. They adopted Jake, a German shepherd mix, from the Ottawa Humane Society (OHS).
“Jake is basically our fur child, and our family would not be complete without him,” says Laura, a translation coordinator for Universities Canada. “He celebrates holidays and birthdays with us, and we throw him a ‘gotcha day’ party every year.”
Animals are absolutely a part of the family, as most adopters would agree, says Shaun Renton, OHS’s manager of adoptions and rehoming. “Pets bring their families many physical, mental and social benefits,” continues Renton, “and people will show their pets the same love and care they would for a human family member.” As Laura puts it: “We spend more time with them than with most people we know, and live our highest and lowest moments with them by our side.”
The view of pets as family members has evolved over the years. “We used to be pretty hardcore and insist that owners not anthropomorphize their pets,” says Renton. “It sets up unreasonable expectations about how the animal should behave, which can cause problems and could lead to animal suffering.”
More recently, animal welfare experts have realized that when someone sees a pet as a child, it reflects a deep bond between the person and their pet. Pets have similar dependencies to children, says Renton, in that they rely on their humans for food, shelter, healthcare and companionship. He notes one important difference—human children will eventually become independent, while animals will not.
In some of these cases, this is where the OHS comes in. In 2022, the shelter helped more than 5,800 animals—including lost pets, which were reunited with their families—and found forever homes for close to 2,700. The most common species are cats and dogs, but the OHS also works with rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats, mice, domestic birds, degus, gerbils and others. Pet parents include single people—Renton says his cat Shadow, adopted when he arrived in Ottawa eight years ago helped to alleviate loneliness—partners with children and less traditional households like the Hansons, but everyone who adopts becomes a family with the addition of their new pet, Renton says.
“100 percent a family member”
Lauren Ehrenworth refers to her four-year-old Irish doodle, Marshall, and her son Grady as “my boys.” Adopted from the Red Dog Canine Centre at eight weeks old, Marshall has been a source of support and comfort for the single mom. “I felt it would be nice to have someone to back me up when things got tough,” says Ehrenworth, who works in communications for the federal government.
“He would come lean on my legs, which is his way of hugging and showing support,” she says. “I also felt safer with him in the house. Also having Crohn’s disease, I can get flare ups without warning. Marshall will simply come and lay beside me until I feel better. It’s a comfort like no other and helps flareups pass more quickly. He has this amazing ability to make me laugh when I’m stressed with his goofy smile and loving ways.”
“A pretty good listener when you need to vent about your day”
A pet helped consultant Keith Egli with work stress. While in the role of chair of the Ottawa Board of Health, the former city councillor worked long hours with the Ottawa Public Health team and the Mayor’s Office to direct the city’s response to COVID. The family acquired Archie, a springer spaniel, in 2020.
“Getting Archie meant that he needed training as well as daily walks,” says Egli. “This meant that I had a forced break from the COVID craziness several times a day and those breaks were very important for me. It allowed me to turn off the phone or laptop and recharge.”
“She’s just been a part of my life for so long”
“She was my baby for eight years before we brought a human child into the world,” says Deanna Wright of her 19-year-old tabby, Spooky. The failed foster helped Wright through some tough times. “[I have] struggled greatly on and off with depression,” says the Stittsville resident. “I’ve been through jobs that left me drained and days when I couldn’t find the energy to get out of bed to feed myself. Whenever I’ve been feeling my worst (which includes physical illness as well), Spooky has always been there—sitting on my lap, quietly purring and rubbing against me.”
Spooky was also a comfort during Wright’s pregnancy and while she awaited gallbladder surgery in 2008. “Every time I’m sick or cold or when I’ve been in the grips of depression, she’s always been right with me to do what she can to help me feel better.”
Wright’s son Declan, 8, has never known life without cats. “He’s learned that animals can be caring and compassionate family members; that if we adopt them, we take the time and responsibility to care for them properly,” she says. “In return, we get unconditional love and affection. What else can you ask of family but that?”
While caring for pets teaches youngsters life lessons, parents should be prepared to take on all pet-related responsibilities, says Renton. They should also want the companionship of a pet for their own benefit as well as the benefit of their children. “The best matches,” Renton says, “are made when every member of a family wants to love and care for their new furry friend.”
As for Jake, he’s living the life with his two moms. He’s walked three times a day, and enjoys naps and playtime. “Jake is what we call our Velcro dog,” says Laura. “He is glued to us wherever we go in the house, particularly when food is involved.”
“He is a giant bed hog, taking turns sleeping with each of [us] and hogging the pillows,” says Melissa. “We’ve spent a lot of time working on training as well, and confidence building outdoors. He gets spoiled beyond compare; he deserves every bit of love that we can offer.”
In return, Jake has changed their lives for the best, adds Laura. “Thanks to him, we are also more active. We’ve also discovered so many new places and trails with him.
“Jake opened our world up.”
Something to talk about
Shaun Renton shares questions to ask yourself before adopting a pet
- How much time will you have to care for a pet? How often will the pet be home alone? “Animals are social creatures, and they get lonely,” says Renton.
- What would your schedule look like with a pet? “Pets are creatures of habit and thrive when feeding, playtime and walks are on a schedule.”
- Do you have the resources to care for a pet for their entire life?
- Does your lifestyle match a pet’s needs? “Some dogs might need lots of intense exercise every day while others may be happy with short walks around the block,” Renton says.
- Is everyone in your household is OK with adding a pet to the family?
Ages and stages
Pets help people in every stage of their lives
Children “Caring for a family pet can help children learn important lessons about responsibility and commitment,” says Shaun Renton. “Pets help children develop empathy and better emotional expression, and children with pets show increased trust, community feeling, safety and self-confidence. Many children also really benefit from having an animal to comfort them.” Being exposed to pets at an early age has also been shown to reduce the risk of allergies.
Teens Pets can be their best friend and can help them further develop a sense of responsibility and commitment, says Renton. “They’re also pretty great confidantes and supports for teens who are figuring out who they are in the world.”
Seniors Pets are great for people who are older, as they can help reduce feelings of loneliness and help someone who is grieving a loss. “We hear many seniors say they’re too old to make a commitment, but depending on their resources to care for the pet, adopting a senior pet might be the perfect solution,” Renton says.
- Keep us active and healthy
- Reduce our stress and improve our mood
- Help us make new connections, by getting us out and about or sharing adorable photos online.
- Teach children about compassion and empathy
- Shaun Renton