Animal magic: how my pet saved me

From Wolfy the lurcher to Trixie the hamster, these affectionate animals helped five people get their lives back on track

‘I put myself on peternity leave and we hung out’: Kate Spicer, 49, journalist, and Wolfy the dog, 9, London

There were a lot of things that were a bit awry about my life. The main problem was that I went out and didn’t come home. I’d go on these benders that were incredibly destructive to my wellbeing. And then when I was working, I’d never leave the house. I’d just sit in front of the laptop thinking about all the work I had to do, moping, writing, moping again. I felt frozen in time. Unable to move forward.

There are some things you don’t question because they’re family lore and in my family it was that you can’t have a dog in London. But when I met my boyfriend and we got a flat together, I realised I really, really wanted a dog.

After many failed attempts, we found a man who was getting rid of a lurcher. The night before we met him, I was out and someone offered me drugs. I said: “No, I’m getting a dog in the morning.” They looked at me like, “So?” But it felt massive to me. That morning, my boyfriend and I drove to a place near the M25 to meet the man with the lurcher. The dog walked towards us and was a bit sad-looking, really dirty and smelled terrible. But he was still so elegant and funny, too.

It was exciting having this other little soul come into our tiny orbit. I put myself on “peternity leave” and Wolfy, as we called him, and I just hung out for a while. We’d go for lunch together and on lots of walks. He loved it.

Obviously he’s simple, he’s an animal, but his presence pulled me out of myself and centred me back to a calm part of myself. I was 45 and had worked as a freelancer in London for 25 years and was pretty hardened. But he softened me and helped me love unconditionally. I now had a reason to come home at night. I still went to parties, but in a less destructive way. Sometimes I’d take him with me and he’d just look at me like, “What the fuck? Let’s go home.” And I’d be like, “Yeah, you’re right.”

It’s been an ongoing thing since then to disentangle from doing things that harm me. And to do things that make my short time on this earth joyful and positive; Wolfy is my daily lesson in how to live that life.

Kate Spicer’s book Lost Dog: A Love Story is published by Ebury. Order it for £14.95 from

‘My cat alerted me to cancerous cells in my breast’: Angela Tinning, 46, finance manager, and Missy the cat, 7, Newcastle

‘She started following me around everywhere. She wasn’t like that with anyone else’: Angela with Missy.
‘She started following me around everywhere. She wasn’t like that with anyone else’: Angela with Missy. Photograph: Alex Telfer/The Observer

We got Missy as a kitten and gave her that name because she was quite the diva. Our family immediately loved her, but she didn’t necessarily show that she loved us back. She didn’t like being picked up or cuddled. Everything was on her terms. In April 2013, when she was less than one year old, we were all playing on the floor when she jumped on my chest and I thought, “Ooh, that hurt a little.” After that, whenever I was lying down she’d lie on me and paw at this one spot on my right breast. If I moved her paw, she’d put it back in the same place. If I was sitting down, she’d get up on my lap and nudge her head there. She started following me around everywhere. She wasn’t like that with anyone else.

It was three months of that behaviour before I admitted it wasn’t going to stop. I knew it sounded crazy to go to the doctor and say, “My cat keeps bothering me,” but I had some discomfort, too. The doctor found atypical cells and calcification in the same spot Missy had been nudging. It wasn’t full-blown breast cancer, but it had the potential to change, so I had an operation to remove the cells.

I felt so grateful to Missy; I wouldn’t have gone to the doctor if it hadn’t been for her. I’d heard of dogs doing that kind of thing, but not cats. When I got home I rewarded her with some Marks & Spencer’s prawns – rather than the Asda ones that she’s used to.

As my wound healed she backed off and went back to her aloof self. It was weird for me. I felt like maybe she didn’t love me as much any more. I was back to being treated like everyone else. But I was comforted that there was a reason for her behaviour.

One night two years later, she came and lay on my chest in bed. I said to my partner: “Do you think she’s trying to tell me something?” He laughed it off. But the next night was the same. She started following me again. It was really unsettling. I’d got used to her barely bothering to get off the bed. When I went back to the same doctor with no symptoms other than my cat pestering me I had to plead with her to believe me. She sent me to the hospital and I was given the same diagnosis and they did the same operation again. It was the same consultant and team. They were fantastic – and believed me. Not everyone does, but that’s up to them.

Two years later when it all happened a third time, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. There were eight areas of calcification in my breast. I had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery and they removed the lymph nodes.

That was 2017. Thankfully, Missy’s been consistently aloof since then and I’ve been fine. I know it sounds strange but I feel as if she saved my life. She will forever be my hero, whether she likes it or not.

‘After I lost everything, he made life worth living’: Ben Coles, 33, unemployed, and Biggie the iguana, 4, Chippenham, Wiltshire

Ben Coles and iguana Biggie
‘If I turn my face, he’ll give me a little lick on the lips’: Ben Coles and Biggie. Photograph: Sam Pelly/The Observer

When I first got Biggie, I had a job, a house, a girlfriend. He was six months old and about 18in long. But about six months into having him, I went through a bad spell of mental health. As a result, I lost my job, then my house, broke up with my girlfriend, and was almost declared bankrupt. Everything just toppled on me. I had anxiety and I was very easily irritated. I don’t blame them, but my family and friends eventually became sick of me. It felt like Biggie was the only being not giving me grief and I just felt this closeness to him.

But it was a struggle for me to keep hold of him. No landlords wanted to take us in and I was left homeless. People hear “iguana” and they think, “Oh God, it’s going to rip everything apart.” I spent three months living on my mum’s sofa, paying friends to look after Biggie. I fell out with my mum for not taking him in. For a period, he lived in Bristol and I went back and forth every day to see him, because obviously all the moving and being apart from each other was stressful for the lizard as well.

I’d lost everything in my life, but he was my partner in crime and the only thing I was living for. I can’t imagine how much harder that time would have been without him. Keeping him alive saved my life.

Eventually I got a place in Chippenham. He’s grown to four-and-a-half-foot long now. He thinks he’s a cat and just loves attention. When I do the dishes, he comes and sits on my head. If I turn my face, he’ll give me a little lick on the lips. With certain people he’ll climb up their leg and sit and stare at them until they start stroking him. When he outgrew his vivarium, I set out basking areas with UV lights, and now he roams free around the house. I bathe him twice a day because he’s a rainforest lizard. He makes a fuss to get in the tub, but loves it once he’s in. My girlfriend works in an expensive supermarket and Biggie loves their fruit, which is quite a pricey habit. His favourite is Candyfloss grapes. At night, he sits on my chest and I put my dressing gown over us. Luckily, my girlfriend loves him, too.

‘Trixie helps me control my obsessive thoughts’: Stephanie Lynch, 25, civil servant, and Trixie the hamster, 1, Port Talbot, Wales

‘Watching Trixie play gives me such a feeling of joy’: Stephanie with Trixie.
‘Watching Trixie play gives me such a feeling of joy’: Stephanie with Trixie. Photograph: Sam Pelly/The Observer

So often in my life I feel like what I say or what I do is going to have a grave consequence, but with Trixie I don’t feel that way. When I shut the bedroom door to be with her, she’s so present in the room, everything else just goes away.

I have OCD which stems from guilt towards a lot of things. As a child, my family had a house fire and one of my little brothers passed away. After that, if I heard a noise in the night, I had to sit up to check everything was OK; if I didn’t, I’d feel like there would be another fire. I became obsessed with thinking about accidents. Every 10 minutes I was imagining falling and would have the physical feeling you get just before you fall. It was about me, my boyfriend, anyone around me.

But Trixie helped change that. Late last summer, I started medication and got her not long afterwards. Hamsters need a lot of care and having a positive impact on her through feeding, changing her bedding, just making the right choices, really helped me. Watching Trixie play, sniff around, climb all over me, I found myself smiling on my own, which is not something I do. It was such a light feeling of joy. And a break from my thoughts.

Our boxroom is her room now. I love changing her cage. I think, “Well, what might she find interesting?” I know her different moods and have learned her favourite treat is watermelon. I still get the obsessive thoughts, but I can choose to let them go and think of Trixie.

She doesn’t know how much she means to me. Or how I feel. But that doesn’t matter. There’s something to be said for getting comfort from another being without telling them why you’re upset. Obviously I know hamsters don’t live forever and hate the thought of her dying, but I know I’m giving her the best life possible. And she gives me so much back.

‘I felt so isolated, but he helped connect to the world’: Majid Sohrabi, 49, and Oxford the dog, 5, Alexandria, Dumbertonshire

‘I can’t believe how pessimistic I was before I got him. He’s my best mate’: Majid with Oxford.
‘I can’t believe how pessimistic I was before I got him. He’s my best mate’: Majid with Oxford. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Observer

The first time I saw Oxford he was a puppy. I thought, “He needs someone to look after him; how’s he going to help me?” But within months, he had changed my life. I can’t bend down any more so when I drop things, which is all the time, he picks them up. He helps me get dressed. If I ask him, he gets the landline phone. He kind of stands and puts his paws around the handset and then grabs it with his jaws, very gently. It’s especially helpful when I’ve had a fall.

Back in 2010, I was working as a nurse in Glasgow and writing my dissertation for my master’s when I started to get this feeling like I had cushions under my heels, within days it turned into unbearable pain. I was having lunch with my girlfriend when I realised I couldn’t stand up on my own. Later that year I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Physically, the disease made me uncoordinated and I became unstable. I had to give in to using a wheelchair. To me, it felt like the end of the road. I used to love cycling from Glasgow to Loch Lomond and running. I couldn’t stand looking out of the window at people going about their normal life. My girlfriend and I broke up and my family were all in Tehran. I had to move out of the city to find a bungalow. I didn’t know anyone in my new town and just spent my time on my own behind the computer watching movies. My physiotherapist suggested I get a dog through the charity Canine Partners.

Oxford was key to reconnecting me to the world. He made me get out of the house to take him for walks. I started sailing and playing wheelchair basketball. He’s changed my body image, too. When I used to go shopping I felt like this strange thing everyone was staring at in the middle of the shopping centre. When you’re at a lower level to everyone else, you can think of yourself as not a part of society. But with him next to me, more people say hello or approach me and ask about him.

His foster parents, from when he was a puppy, Jan and Peter, live in Sussex and we’ve become close. They come to visit us once a year and we travel around Scotland. I can’t believe how pessimistic I was before I got him. He’s my best mate and we’ve become a great team.

Majid has received support from the MS Society


Candice Pires

The GuardianTramp

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