In the isolation of lockdown, quarantines and travel restrictions, many of us have found comfort during the pandemic in walking our dogs or cuddling our cats.
The Covid-19 crisis has reinforced what pet owners already know: that keeping animals at home has multiple benefits, including companionship, opportunities for exercise and even relief from anxiety.
But despite these many positives, the flip side is that the pandemic has also compounded economic and social challenges, jeopardising the wellbeing of both animals and people.
Some of those who have lost jobs and livelihoods have found themselves no longer able to afford to keep their pets, while in the worst cases, domestic violence under lockdown has also extended to animal cruelty.
The benefits of companion animals are clearer now more than ever, but so too is the risk of abandonment, mistreatment and suffering. The pandemic should be the impetus for pet ownership to become more sustainable to protect and enhance the benefits for both humans and animals alike.
Given the health of animals and people are so closely connected, the uniting principle of “One Health” can be extended to “One Wellbeing” as well.
For families to get the maximum benefit of bringing animals into their homes, they must also be equipped to ensure pets receive the care they need to be healthy and happy.
The same need for mutual care applies to all animals that also work or assist their owners or handlers, including assistance dogs or animals involved in therapeutic interventions.
To start with, veterinarians must continue to be treated as “essential workers” even after the pandemic to safeguard animal health and wellbeing.
A key part of delivering essential health services for animals will be recruiting more professionals to avert a shortage and ensure access to healthcare for all pets and pet owners.
Veterinarians for farm animals are already in short supply. If pet ownership is to be sustainable well into the future, animals need to be able to receive the care, treatment and attention they deserve in a timely, accessible way.
Beyond immediate and physical health needs, better animal wellbeing also requires more scientific knowledge and understanding to equip not only veterinarians but also pet owners to better care for animals.
Public agencies and veterinary authorities should ringfence more investment into research that studies animal emotions and psychology to help guide better standards for pet ownership.
Robust evidence about animal wellbeing and behaviour can then inform basic requirements for those adopting animals, such as the exam for new dog owners in Germany, the protocols for animals in housing and quality standards for animal handling in animal-assisted interventions in healthcare.
Finally, protecting pets and the benefits they offer people also means treating animal health and wellbeing as an integral part of public health at the highest level.
For example, recent EU plans for a European Health Union should be expanded to include provisions for lifelong pet ownership and access to animal assisted interventions in healthcare.
Such top-level frameworks offer the opportunity to embed veterinary care, multidisciplinary research and standards as priorities, not only for the benefit of people but also the animals in our custody.
For animal ownership to be truly sustainable, it is not enough to simply reap the benefits they provide. Society must also be providing care and attention for optimal animal wellbeing.
Companion animals may be reliant on their human carers but human health and animal health are intertwined, interrelated and interdependent.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it must be a recognition that public health is the sum total of the physical and mental wellbeing of humans and animals alike.