Long distance relations with pets

How can the idea of social distancing brought to light by the coronavirus crisis help uncover the issue of separation from pets?

Pets have come to the forefront of our minds and media recently as staying at home means many of us are spending more time with them than ever before. We've been reminded of the benefits that animal companionship can bring for mental health in uncertain times. Undoubtedly, dealing with demanding dogs or keyboard-hopping cats can ground us in our humanity that is helpful to keep calm and carry on. But what about those whose ‘social distancing’ extends to pets and what does this mean for their pet-loving identities? Separation from pets is complex to navigate at any time, but can be amplified for those who newly find themselves in the position of stranded student or key worker.

Feeling at home
During my research with university students about their experiences of living away from their pets, it became clear that they equated feeling ‘at home’ with physical proximity to pets. They recalled experiences of having their pets nearby as fostering a sense of belonging and familial network. The comfort of pets came from the interactions with them, such as stroking, handling, feeding and walking, that formed the rhythms of domestic life and were reciprocated by the affection and listening ear of their pets. They often valued communication with their pets over humans because they are seen to offer a non-judgemental outlet that is conducive to unconditional love.

Social distancing
Many students or key workers may find themselves home-bound, but not at home with pets at the moment. Physical closeness may not be an option and can be an overlooked aspect of the isolation that often characterises homesickness. How can this distance be dealt with when a shared home is the space in which a relationship with pets is typically maintained?

Social petworking
One of the ways that an identity as a pet lover is maintained across geographical space is by sharing photographs, videos and welfare updates online which may fall under the remit of ‘social petworking’. This might occur within families or more publicly across social networks. Either way, it's a means of maintaining emotional proximity when physical contact is not possible. Apple’s recent introduction of ‘pet portrait mode’ is indicative of the appeal of photographing pets so we can keep in touch with their activities at distance. Pets become embedded into our ‘virtual’ social lives to the extent that it is possible to engage in a video chat with them.

Personally, an online chat with my cats entails me watching their every move and leaves me wondering if they recognise me! What I am sure of, is that for myself and the students I interviewed in 2016, the liveness of such an encounter; seeing a pet move or make a noise in real time can be a step towards the intimacy of tactility and lack of conversational etiquette that is sometimes preferable to human contact.

Have you experienced a period of separation from your pets? How did you handle it?