One of the consequences of the pandemic has turned out to be the increase in the number of pet adoptions in Italy. Social distancing, which is also at the root of much loneliness and depression, increased the desire and need for companionship and affection. In addition, the pace of digital work, the development of new habits that see, for example, individuals increasingly linked to home life or dedicated in their free time to outdoor activities, has instilled in people of all ages the desire to share everyday life with a four-legged friend. In fact, having a pet generates a sense of emotional comfort and is a functional remedy to fill moments of emptiness.
The Ente Nazionale Protezione Animali (ENPA), the biggest Italian society for animal rights, protection, and welfare, reported that pet adoptions increased more than 15% in the course of the pandemic. Compared to 2019, in 2020 there were 8,100 dogs and 9,500 cats that found a home. In this campaign, social networks have played a key role by making it possible to match the supply and demand of adoption. In fact, the social pages of associations and kennels, publishing photos and information sheets of animals, have been able to reach a large public and to get in touch quickly with people or families willing to adopt an animal. The increase in adoptions, then, has also brought an improvement to the problem of stray dogs and cats that is widespread in much of Italy.
Other people, however, have decided to buy a pet: ranging from dogs and cats to hamsters, rabbits, fish, parrots, and turtles. Regardless of the type of animal, some studies conducted during the pandemic have determined that owning a pet brings many health benefits, including decreased anxiety and boosted mood. Indeed, having someone to care for and pamper causes an increase in the production of serotonin, better known as ‘the happiness hormone’. Besides being man’s best friends, animals have turned into ‘unconscious therapists’ to help us cope with the new normal. With the pandemic, even those who thought they did not want an animal in their house have discovered that their love can make everyday life much more pleasant.
There was, however, a downside as some animals became orphans when their owners died from from COVID-19. And, many times, family members or friends cannot or do not feel like taking care of them, so the animals end up in ad hoc facilities. One of the associations that takes care of orphaned dogs and cats is the Italian League for the Defense of Animals and the Environment. In 2020, they launched an adoption campaign called “It’s Christmas, remember me!” precisely to try to find a new family for animals who lost their human companions.
In general, thanks to the increase in adoptions during the pandemic too, Italy was confirmed as one of the European countries with the highest number of domestic animals. Over 62 million pets live in the homes of Italians, of which 16 million are dogs and cats. Therefore, one out of two Italians owns a pet, a tendency with a positive pattern already for years before the lockdown. Dogs are in first place as the most loved pet, while cats come in second place, followed by rodents, birds, tortoises, fish, and exotic animals such as snakes and iguanas. Italians are confirmed to be a population of true animal lovers. The main reason people chose to have a pet is for the joy and balance that comes from their unconditional fidelity.
If in the past animals were mainly considered an aid in work, today those who own a pet consider it a true member of the family to share moments with and to take everywhere. And, many times, pet owners go so far as to consider ‘their creature’ as a child. This results, for instance, in celebrating their birthday by giving them food, toys or even creating a cake, allowing dogs and cats to sleep in bed or get on the couch, taking them on vacation or to bringing them during everyday activities like shopping or a dinner out with friends.
Recently, animals have also been the focus of a speech by Pope Francis, which was followed by criticism and reactions of incredulity and disappointment when he said: “Today we see a form of selfishness. We see that some people do not want to have a child. Many couples do not have children because they do not want to, or they have just one, but they have two dogs, two cats. Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children. This denial of motherhood and fatherhood diminishes us, takes away our humanity.”
With the advent of the lockdown it was assumed there would be an increase in the birth rate, but this was not the case due to several factors that are not taken into consideration by the Pope’s speech. The decline in the birth rate is due to elements such as economic problems, unemployment, and the uncertainty of the future, making young couples unsure of realizing their desire to expand the family. 2019, 2020, and 2021 saw record low birth rates in Italy with numbers comparable only to the post-war period. The ‘demographic winter’, though, is not only a problem specific to Italy, and the pandemic is not the root but only an accomplice that has exacerbated the issue. The main reasons for the decline in birth rates are, in addition to the physical impossibility or decision to not have children: unequal rights between mothers and fathers, the precariousness of work and the consequent lack of guarantee of stability for the future, the desire to build a career that leads both men and women to take more time for themselves and carefully plan the arrival of a child, and the increase in the cost of living.
From a practical standpoint, then, the empty cradles and full doghouses scenario is understandable. Many would argue that the ultimate goal of a family is to care for each other. If that is indeed the case, then perhaps it matters little how many legs those who share the same roof with us have.
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