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Pets in Mind

Our latest guest blogger Dr James Greenwood is a practising veterinary surgeon in Bristol. He treats an array of animals from dogs, cats, rabbits and even on one occasion – a baby elephant! James is a passionate advocate for animal welfare and for the natural world around us. Growing up surrounded by pets, he has first-hand experience of how important animals are to us all, as both children and adults, and the support they can offer us in our day to day busy lives.

I grew up literally surrounded by animals. I lived and breathed for the trips with my Mum to the pet shop to further my collection of exotic fish, newts, hamsters and stick insects. At one point – I had six tanks in my bedroom, each home to a variety of species, all carefully researched and funded by my pocket money and Saturday jobs. 

In the back garden I had chickens, ducks, bantams, rabbits, guinea pigs, cats and a king Charles Spaniel called Smudge. These pets were like family to me, I loved them all and the excitement and company they brought into my life. I was never without pets and therefore it was not that much of a surprise when I decided to become a vet.

Vet school is tough though – it is definitely not the parade of cute fluffy animals it might seem. It is five long years of intense studying, difficult exams, long hours and lots of work in veterinary practices throughout the holidays. Some of the hardest years of my whole career were in the first few years of practice. Trying to put everything you have learned into practice and not make any mistakes – the pressure was really on!

I look back at those days and think what was missing? Why did I find it so difficult? And for sure – one reason is because I had lived so long without any pets. For the five years of university and the two years after graduating, I was that snowed under looking after other people’s pets (which I really enjoyed – and still do) that I hadn’t the time to devote to my own.

So, after much thought and deliberation – I decided it was time to get a dog. And almost by magic – Oliver came into our lives at just the right time, as though it was all just ‘meant to be’. I had a vet student with me at the time whose sister’s Labrador had just had a litter of puppies but there was only one left and he was a bit ‘quirky’ – the perfect match for me!

At just six-weeks-old, before we had him, Oliver was attacked by another dog. He fractured his skull and had lost his right eye. My partner and I went to meet him and we both fell in love immediately – we knew this little chappy needed our help (and we needed him too).

Fast forward a decade – and Oliver will be 10 years old in a couple of months. Throughout our time together – he has seen me go through some huge highs and also some major lows. However, no matter how high or low I am – Oliver has been a constant daily support to the both of us and that’s why we love him so dearly. 

Which kind of leads me to ask myself ‘What is it about loving a dog that brings me so much joy?’ And the answer I think is quite simple – we need each other. I need Oliver to make me feel calm, give me a reason to get out of the house every day and to take my mind off all the stuff going on in my life – he is a great distraction from all the ‘noise’ of a busy modern lifestyle. And he needs me to look after him, give him tasty food, take him for nice long walks and make his life as perfect as I can.

So we’re kind of like a team. If I’m in a low mood, he lifts me up. If I feel sluggish, he can energise me. And if he needs my help – I’m there for him. He doesn’t realise he is doing all these things because he is, after all, just a dog. But I know he can read me. He can sense all of my emotions and I can sense his. I can tell when he is upset, when he is anxious, scared or really happy. 

And because I am so in tune with his emotions – it helps me to focus on mine. He is so steady and so calm that when my mind is racing and bouncing all over the place – I can just take five minutes out to sit with Oliver and it helps me to hit the ‘reset’ button and just chill out a bit. There is so much we can learn from animals, he has a very balancing influence on me which is a massive source of comfort and strength.

Owning a pet is a huge responsibility and one that should not be taken lightly. If you are thinking of getting a pet, do your research and really make sure it is right for you. However, there are still loads of ways you can spend time with animals – maybe volunteer at an animal rescue centre or offer to help friends look after their pets. Or just go for a walk in the park and see how many dogs you bump into! Dog owners are generally really friendly and as long as you ask the owner first – most will be more than happy for you to greet their dogs whilst you’re out and about. 

I have made a promise to myself to never be without a dog again. There are so many scientific studies that have proven how beneficial having a pet can be on our physical and mental wellbeing – but to be honest, having Oliver is all the proof I need. So have a think about devoting some time to being with animals – because you never know – it might just help you out a bit, like it did for me.

On My Mind has a self-care page that includes 85 self-care strategies – Spending time with animals/pets is one strategy. Browse them all and discover what works for you. And if you’ve tried something you can let us know if it helped and how it helped using the ‘Did this activity work for you?’ button on any self-care page.