PhD life and pets: the wellbeing benefits of studying alongside furry friends

Lockdowns and social restrictions over the past year because of the COVID-19 pandemic have been very isolating, particularly so for postgraduate researchers who often spend long periods alone studying at home. But Giles Penman discusses his positive experiences of looking after a pet while studying for his PhD.

The requirements to stay at home over lockdowns and to remain socially distant from friends and family have been challenging for my mental health. I have sometimes felt sad and isolated without the opportunity to enjoy meals and activities with friends and relatives. And conducting research in this restrictive situation by myself has compounded these feelings.

However, looking after a black-and-white cat at home with my partner has been surprisingly uplifting. Our cat is called Mr. Parker because he is very curious and a real nosy parker. He has a unique character and meows at everything: when he wants food, when he’s finished eating, when he wants water, when he’s finished drinking, when he needs to use his litter tray and when he’s finished with his litter tray. He also meows greetings to people he meets and when he sees birds, squirrels and other cats. And Mr Parker will meow until you reassure him that you’ve heard him. In fact, I think that Mr. Parker feels that he can actually talk to his human flatmates. While he may seem high maintenance, it is a joy to care for Mr. Parker. Caring for our cat and tending to his needs, I forget about my research worries and the isolation of the present restrictions. And I feel happier knowing that Mr. Parker is contented and well and that I have positively contributed to his wellbeing.

Also, because Mr. Parker has FIV, a feline version of HIV, he cannot go outside by himself. Therefore, my partner and I need to walk him in the garden each day, come rain or shine. We hold him on a harness and lead and walk him around the communal garden. Mr. Parker explores the bushes and flowerbeds, scratches the bark on the trees, and checks the perimeter fences for gaps. When the sun shines, Mr. Parker lies on his favourite section of soil by the fir tree and happily basks in the warmth of the sunshine for hours. Mr. Parker also enjoys chasing birds and squirrels if he has chance. But my partner and I need to be careful that he doesn’t escape, since if Mr Parker senses an opportunity, he will not hesitate to make a bid for freedom through gaps in fences and hedges into the world outside the garden. Therefore, walks with Mr. Parker are never dull, and there is no telling what he will do next. And we his humans can enjoy a walk in the fresh air and appreciate the beauty of the trees and flowers, and occasionally the warm glow of the sunshine. Enjoying nature with Mr. Parker gives me a great sense of inner peace and calm, free from the worries and concerns of my academic work or the isolation of COVID restrictions. This is very similar to the feeling I have when take a walk in the local park, which I discussed in a recent blog post.

In the evening when my partner and I relax on the sofa, Mr. Parker will often lie next to us or across our knees. Then, we can stroke him, feeling his soft fur under our fingertips and the warm radiating from his body as he purrs contentedly. It seems very simple, but this gentle physical contact with Mr. Parker always soothes me and makes me very calm indeed. My worries just seem to disappear entirely as though I am mirroring Mr. Parker’s contentedness. There really is nothing quite like petting your cat.

Look at those paws!!

In those old days in which we could still PATdogs and greet our friendly campus cat, Rolf, we were already aware of the positive impact pets have on our general wellbeing. Pets can also teach us how to relax (Rolf says Relax!) and offer a welcome distraction from our worries. If you have a pet and enjoy spending time with them, tell us all about them and send us photographs if you would like to. Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk, or leave a comment below.

by Giles

Giles Penman is a PhD researcher supervised by the Classics and History Departments at the University of Warwick. His research concerns the roles and audiences of ancient imagery on British civic cultural artefacts of the Great War. He has a background in Classics, Archaeology and Numismatics

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