Happy covid Christmas…it’s a dog’s life

We have likely spent too much of 2020 believing our own thoughts, and striving to prove ourselves right. This unscientific tik was also on display when one of our family members pleaded for a pandemic puppy. The parent (who shall remain nameless) thought too much about how the dog would upset their manicured life and not enough about why their child craved a companion. The nay-sayer in question (alright it was Peter) was tone-deaf, and, when we finally did get a puppy, he was also delightfully wrong. This end-of-year report is about how a pet, and not a publication or presentation, was the unexpected highlight of a forgettable and unforgettable year. It is a seasonal reminder of how doctors don’t have all the answers, or even all the right questions.

Moose, the Magnificent

Our respective families both recently acquired family dogs, and both of us had doubts beforehand. However, Moose (the magnificent) and Chester (the cuddler) will undoubtedly make our Christmases warmer, and our houses more like homes. It no longer matters that our residences contain doggy hair and dodgy smells: it is a small price for 2020 joy. The literature suggests that dog owners live longer and experience greater wellbeing, cardiovascular health, mental health, and less loneliness. [1,2] Dogs may also strengthen communities and keep the vulnerable safe (“we should check in on her, she normally walks the dog every day”). In hospitals and care homes, pets help patients and staff to feel less institutionalized. However, let’s face it, the literature says lots of things. This annus horribilis has shown how easily ideas can be twisted and mangled. This is why we need to remain vigilant to bias and blinkers, including our own.

Chester, the cuddler

This year we didn’t just became dog owners, we recommitted to the scientific method. During covid-19 it is worth remembering that science is not a fixed set of facts. Instead it is one of humanity’s best strategies for ensuring data shouts louder than politics. Science is the best single way forward, but it isn’t tailor-made for questions of happiness and contentment. Therefore, brace yourself this holiday season, as we dare to discuss our feelings and our pets in a medical journal. Scheduled programmes will resume after these important messages. We shall temporarily relax our quest for immutable biomedical truth, and not “draw your attention to the Y-axis”—or whatever else we say during turgid lectures. In the n=2 study of Moose and Chester, let’s simply acknowledge that rational adults can learn lots from irrational fur balls. 

Being a dog owner has not only been a delight, it’s been an eye-opening experiment. For example, we thought we knew our neighbours. Turns out, we had never even met half of the street. The reason is because they, and we, previously rushed by with our heads elsewhere. We now stop to say “hi” and to compare pooch stories. People who we previously assumed standoffish, are often quite happy to stop so that dogs can meet and sniff bums (do we look, do we look away?). You then have your excuse to converse and share a smile. Social awkwardness is overcome with “what’s his/her name?” “how old, and what breed?” If we’re not careful we might start to care about each other. 

By the second walk you tip your hat and offer a grin. By meeting-three you contemplate an invite to tea, but only, of course, “to allow the dogs to play”. Before becoming dog-people we thought many owners were indulgent and misguided. We now appreciate that many are hardy and selfless. After all, they venture out in the rain and the snow, and attend to another’s needs. The big truth is that most people are nice if you just give them the time of day. Strange that it took a dog to help us understand humans. 

Walking the dog started out as an inconvenience. It is still an imperative, but it is also a therapeutic leg stretch and brain rest. It is too easy to be busy and self-obsessed. In contrast, “doing little” is an artform whose time has come. Having a dog has made it easier to receive the gift of an ordinary day and to find time for others: not a bad thing during covid-19. As outlined in Christopher Ryan’s bestseller “Civilized to Death” the modern world is impressive, but it has also perverted how we live, feel, work, play, and interact. [3] It may be easier to rectify these faults using a dog’s eye view.

Pets reconnect us to simple pleasures. So many cultures have words for this deficit that it must be part of what humans crave. The Danish and Norwegian talk of hygge and lykke (coziness, conviviality, well-being). The Dutch have niksen (doing something just for the fun of it). The Swedes have lagom (moderation), the Bulgarians aylyak (idleness), and the French have their flâneur (or wanderers). These are innate needs that we might otherwise dismiss. Even if doctors don’t formally prescribe pets (“take two dog-walks and call me in the morning”), they might just counter what the Finnish call kalsarikänni or päntsdrunk, namely, the tendency to stay home in your underwear and drink alcohol. Fortunately, pets don’t judge or post pictures. [4]

Science matters mightily, especially in 2020. However, this year pets were fundamental to keeping people in nature, caring about our communities, and simply able to “chill”. Philosophers such as Cicero and Voltaire argued centuries ago that if you have a garden and a library then you likely have all you really need. Like good science, that advice has endured because it stands the test of time, and tells us who we really are. Regardless, while in Voltaire’s garden, it could be even more fun to throw a stick. In Cicero’s library it would be extra special with an animal lying at your feet. We accept that our pets will not last our whole lives but, especially this year, they have made our lives more whole. Also, this Christmas we want to thank our kids for proving us “know-it-alls” wrong—but no, you can’t have a cat.   

Peter Brindley, Department of Critical Care Medicine, Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine, and the Dosseter Ethics Centre, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. Scholar, Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies. Twitter @docpgb

Matt Morgan, honorary senior research fellow at Cardiff University, consultant in intensive care medicine, research and development lead in critical care at University Hospital of Wales, and an editor of BMJ OnExamination. Twitter: @dr_mattmorgan


  1. https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/health-benefits/index.html
  2. https://www.bmj.com/content/331/7527/1252
  3. https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Civilized-to-Death/Christopher-Ryan/9781451659115
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pantsdrunk