I honestly don’t know how I would have made it through the past year without my cat. Stuck at home for months on end, watching scenes from my worst anxiety-induced nightmares play out each day on the news and on social media, her disinterested presence has been a lifeline. She’s been unperturbed by the rising death tolls, political failures and overzealous policing that have triggered my panic attacks. After some initial confusion as to why her human was suddenly at home all day, every day, she has adapted to lockdown living in the way only an animal can: we live like this now, more food please.
I know I am extremely fortunate to have her in my life. I own my flat, and when my ex suddenly moved out three years ago there was no need to ask anyone’s permission to invite a new feline flatmate (“cat-mate”) into my home. For the 20 per cent of UK households in the private rented sector, plus those in social housing, and indeed many homeowners in leasehold properties, adopting a furry companion is far from straightforward.
According to the National Landlords Association, 55 per cent of landlords have blanket bans on pets. Finding a pet-friendly property is such a challenge that renters are frequently forced to rehome their beloved companions – the 2017 Pet Food Manufacturing Association report found that 10 per cent of people giving up their dogs had done so because of anti-pet landlords, which Battersea Dogs and Cats Home says amounts to 200 dogs a year coming to them because of rental restrictions alone.
But there are simple, practical measures the government could take now – even as its attention is focused elsewhere – that would bring joy and love to millions of renters during this pandemic.
The Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell has introduced legislation to parliament (known as “Jasmine’s Law”, named after a dog separated from its owner because of rental restrictions) that would stop landlords from issuing blanket bans on pets, provided tenants can show they are “responsible owners”. He is also calling for the 2019 Tenant Fees Act, which – rightly – limits fees and deposit amounts for renters, to be amended to allow pet insurance for the property to be charged to tenants, to mitigate against potential damage. It is notable that, while extra charges are never welcome, new polling by YouGov and the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS), published today as part of a report by the charity AdvoCats, shows that a majority of both cat and dog owners would be willing to pay for such insurance in order to bring their pets to a new rented home.
This, it is true, is hardly the most pressing issue when it comes to Britain’s broken housing market. A shortage of housebuilding, overly restrictive building regulations, stagnating incomes and monetary policies that have pumped money into assets and provided cheap mortgages for buy-to-let landlords have made getting on the housing ladder an impossibility for a third of millennials. Rents outstrip mortgage payments, with private renters in London now spending 45 per cent of their income on rental costs. There are severe structural issues with the present housing landscape that urgently need addressing. In the context of rising rents, unstable tenancy agreements and substandard rental conditions, the fact that renters are also denied animal company might seem a minor annoyance.
But the need to pursue radical housing reform is no excuse for not taking simpler, more targeted action now to help renters where possible – especially at such a critical time.
Public health experts have warned that, in the midst of the Covid crisis, the UK now faces a mental health epidemic. Anxiety and depression are on the rise, with a Prince’s Trust survey finding that one in four young people have felt unable to cope during this crisis. The mental health charity Mind revealed in November that “more people have experienced a mental health crisis during the coronavirus pandemic than ever previously recorded”, getting twice as many calls as in previous years.
It may sound facetious to suggest that having a cat or dog can cure mental illness – and of course it can’t. But what it can do is help, even if it’s just by offering much-needed companionship for people living alone or forcing someone to leave their house because their dog needs a walk – as advised by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF). The MHF website also cites a 2011 survey which found that “87 per cent of people who owned a cat felt it had a positive impact on their wellbeing, while 76 per cent said they could cope with everyday life much better thanks to the company of their feline friends”. And a more recent study from September 2020 by researchers at York and Lincoln found that “90 per cent of respondents said their pet helped them cope emotionally with the lockdown”.
There are clear societal and economic arguments for expanding access to pets for renters who would like them. A study from Lincoln University estimates that “pets could save the NHS up to £2.45bn a year” in reduced GP visits and improved mental health. Pets are cheaper than antidepressants and significantly more fun as well.
Of course, a pet is for life, not just for lockdown. The heartwarming stories about shelters seeing all their animals adopted at the start of the pandemic have given way to darker tales: of unscrupulous breeders, dognapping gangs, and experts worried about a flood of abandoned animals when lockdown ends and people realise they weren’t prepared for the commitment. But that doesn’t negate the positive impact pets can have on the lives of responsible owners, and nor is it a reason to keep them the preserve of homeowners.
From my own experience, I am repeatedly awed by the healing power of pets. On days when I have struggled to get out of bed, the cat miaowing for breakfast has forced me out from under the duvet. And when I feel overwhelmed by helplessness and cut off from the rest of the world, burying my face in her fur and feeling her purr can calm me out of an anxiety spiral.
The joy that we find in having rescued each other should have nothing to do with a set of keys and a land registry deed.