Pet parenting in a pandemic: Caring for a fur child during the COVID-19 crisis has its comforts — and challenges

·10 min read

Barely hours before I sat down to gather my thoughts and put this piece together, a friend of mine, incidentally enough, sent me an article on how we humans mostly overestimate the degree of attachment our pet dogs really feel towards us. She followed the link with a sad emoji, because she, much like yours truly, is a dog parent.

I'd be lying if I said the words and the idea didn't unsettle me a little lot. A lot. Largely because in the past four years that I have been my puppy's (yes, they are always pups no matter how old they are or how giant they grow; never dogs) primary caregiver, my very existence has come to depend on his, and my life centred around his schedules and fancies, and I would not have wanted it any other way. So the thought that my pup Bhuto might just prefer someone else's company to mine, or may have liked to spend his days in the park instead of being locked inside our home with me for what seems like seven times eternity, was unnerving, if not utterly shattering.

It all began in 2017, the fateful year in which I became a convert €" a term in the pet parenting world that stands for an individual who successfully transitioned from being terrified, almost paralysed in the presence of an animal (or animals), to dedicating their lives to their service. For someone suffering from anxiety stemming from clinically diagnosed OCD, this transition, however, was far from easy, even though it was almost entirely necessary and worth it.

My partner, a dedicated animal lover, had suggested we adopt a puppy together at a time when my anxiety had spiralled out of control, rendering me incapable of getting out of bed on most days. On better days, I could go as far as my dinner table, and no further. I had quit my job as a television journalist to obsess over my health and that of other's, full-time. I was almost certain I was dying of an undiagnosed ailment that no doctor could detect; I woke up convinced I had cancer in a new part of my body each day. On bad days, there'd be more than one of them.

The relentless search for a competent, affordable therapist had pushed me further into the bottomless pit I was sinking into, until finally, after several weeks of resistance, I gathered every last bead of energy and will in my being to visit the house where Bhuto lived with his siblings, before he came home to us. I thought to myself €" "How bad could living with a puppy get? At least they're not as scary or intimidating as a full-grown dog. They might be cute even." I assured myself that the prospect did not seem entirely uninviting.

Cut to 2020, and I found myself three years into a relationship that I thought I'd reluctantly set foot in, only to have it become my sole reason for existence. It is the source from which I draw my life force and affirmation €" a fact that I have no shame in accepting, especially because it originates from a feeling of love whose abandon and intensity are not just novel, but privileges as well (especially in a time when we are encouraged to expend as little of it as possible, in order to survive).

So what is life as a puppy parent like, in the middle of a never ending fortuity? If you asked the internet, it would tell you it is the best form of therapy (because "all dogs are therapy dogs, most are just freelancing"), and yes, on a majority of days it really is. These magicians with tails and floppy ears just know how to sniff, lick and belly-roll their way into our minds and the deepest recesses of our hearts that we did not know existed until they came hurtling into them. But what does not meet the eye are the infinite moments of excruciating concern and heartache spent trying to understand things they wish to tell you, but don't quite recognise themselves.

It appears with a sudden limp in the paw, a cough in the middle of a night, or a mildly twitching muscle, until it takes the shape of an unnavigable puzzle in one's head at a time when answers are far beyond their reach. The pandemic has effectively rendered the idea of accessible animal healthcare as outlandish, when humans are dropping like flies over the lack of lifesaving drugs and oxygen.

It was during this period that two of my friends lost their middle-aged puppers due to ailments and lack of sound healthcare that could've treated them in time. On both occasions, I remember lying in bed, unable to fall asleep at night. Both times, I turned on my bed-side lamp almost instinctively, in order to check Bhuto's breathing as he slept soundly. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the dim, warm orange glow. It cast its glare on his soft, white outline that fell and rose in a quiet harmony. I timed it on my phone €" 20 times in 60 seconds the first time, 18 times the second. Normal.

I turned out the light, switched off my phone, but even then failed to fall asleep. I wondered if my friends had been able to put to words the grief they felt; if they had at all managed to rein in or make sense of their aching hearts and throbbing heads after losing their greatest comrades and accomplices, their best confidants, soulmates, and children, all rolled into one giant, feathery being. I wondered if both Tori and Gogo would've had a better shot at life had they been born in a different decade or a different place, and not as children of this unforgiving pandemic, especially in this part of the world. None of these thoughts helped with my mounting anxiety, of course, and it only got worse every time I saw Bhuto go about his day just doing his thing, like chewing a bone or chasing a ball, or simply sleeping with his tongue peeking out from his mouth.

I asked myself, over and over again, if I was missing any subtle or telltale sign that signalled something far more sinister, which Bhuto himself was too naive or ill-equipped to read. The drill repeated itself in my head until it had successfully become a loop that I found increasingly impossible to escape. I prodded his belly, shone a torch into his mouth after wrenching it open, and even into his ears, which he never approved of. It would make him act out in confusion in the beginning, and later in utter exasperation and disappointment as he saw me approach him with a torch. This anxiety was contagious, and easily spread from humans to animals.

All along, I did not quite know what it was that I was looking for, but if I did find something (or at least imagined I did), I panicked and cried, setting my heart into an uncomfortable thudding motion. It was worse when I could not find a thing because that obviously meant I wasn't being punctilious enough €" I wasn't qualified to be his parent, and that was unforgivable. And god knows I could do with some mercy in a positively dumpster fire year.

It was after several such episodes that finally on one afternoon, only moments before embarking on my 'torch examination' routine, I realised that I was doing to Bhuto what I had done to myself three years ago. It made me shudder, and yet, I was not an inch closer to learning how to resolve this behaviour that had stemmed from unforeseen circumstances, aggravated by a system of crushing apathy. Vets, medicine and answers were still largely unavailable, and so were references and literature on animal parenting in a global health crisis.

In such moments of epiphany, I continued to reach out to Bhuto for a hug, a squish €" my foolproof survival stratagem since the day we met €" only to have him either wriggle out of my grip, or resign into a sleeping position under my weight, as his tongue stuck out in frantic attempts to slobber all over my face.

*

For the most part of this pandemic, my partner has had to camp in Canada for work. Being the only other person in our lives who knows and understands Bhuto as much as I do, his absence often becomes too overwhelming for both of us to navigate. But we try. However, what this pandemic has taught me about pet parenting, beyond a shred of doubt, is how our vocabularies are not robust enough to capture the profundity of the bonds we share with our fur-children.

A lot of what we feel in our most fragile, vulnerable moments go unaccounted for €" or are flippantly dismissed as symptoms of an 'unhealthy obsession' with our pets €" because we do not have the language to convey them sincerely, or even suitably. The communication gets restricted to a set of personal gestures, codes, and often just stares and sighs comprehensible to only the person and animal in question, rendering it unintelligible to a third person, which in times of uncertainty can become a handicap. This is why, one will often find detractors accuse pet parents of "overreacting" to what they deem unnecessary for "just a dog". No, they're never just a dog, or a cat. They never will be. This institutional indifference towards animal well-being, therefore, can be read as merely an extension of the collective human failure at devising words that truly convey the depths of such extraordinary bonds. The pandemic has further enhanced this inadequacy.

So the more unglamorous, unpalatable truth about being a pet parent that goes missing from the Instagram cute dogs narrative is this: we, as humans, do not have all the answers from the moment we bring home an animal. It is a process, one that oftentimes mirrors that of raising a human child, but with the rather significant difference in communication €" mostly of the verbal kind €" where logical ends and challenges are met routinely. We are less than capable of communicating with them, or understanding them as well as we would like to, and perhaps even in moments when they need us the most. So even though Bhuto did rescue me (in the truest sense of the term 'rescue'), I, more often than not, feel unqualified to do the same for him, and the past year has only worsened this acute sense of incompetence.

It's funny how nearly every time I am roiled in these thoughts, staring away into the distance, Bhuto walks up to me with a slimy piece of drool-soaked rag or toy and plonks it on my lap as a gift/distraction, urging me to interact with him. It works better than all else to snap me out of my daymare, immediately reminding me of the reason I would do all of it all over again (notwithstanding how, in my weaker moments, I have found myself saying that this is the final time I am signing up for puppy parenthood willingly). All I wish for, however, is that the next time round, the world is better equipped with words and empathy, to cope with the less rosier bits of the most life affirming relationship known to humankind.

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