Furry friends help Germans ease pandemic blues
Markus Salomon and his family had been thinking about getting a dog for years, but it was the coronavirus pandemic that finally pushed them to bring home one-year-old mixed breed Uschi.
"The pandemic is of course a time when we are at home a lot, so in lockdown, and that is a good time to get a dog," said the 53-year-old biologist and Berlin resident.
"You can't do very much, you can't go on holiday, you can't visit friends or relatives, but what you can do is go for a walk, a spot of hiking, a drive in the woods, and a dog is great for that," he said.
Germany has seen an explosion in pet adoption in the pandemic, with demand for cats, dogs and other furry companions soaring as people seek ways to ease loneliness and boredom.
The number of dogs sold in the country increased by a "dramatic" 20 percent in 2020 compared with the previous year, according to the Deutsche Hundewesen (VDH) kennel club.
Overall, the number of pets in German households climbed by almost one million to nearly 35 million, figures from the Industrial Association of Pet Care Producers (IVH) show, with cats and dogs at the top of the list.
Breeders and animal shelters have been overwhelmed with demand, with the Tierheim Berlin shelter reporting 500 enquiries in one weekend last spring.
There has also been a knock-on effect for the pet care industry, with demand for food, accessories and toys driving revenues up five percent last year to 5.5 billion euros ($6.5 billion).
In a recent survey by the German pet portal Wamiz.de, 84 percent of dog owners said their pets had not only provided a distraction in the pandemic but also much-needed emotional support.
"Pets are conversation partners for many, especially for people living alone," said Frank Nestmann, a psychologist specialising in human-animal relationships at the Dresden University of Technology.
And their company has been all the more valuable at a time when people are encouraged to stay at home rather than socialise in order to keep coronavirus transmission down.
"People are social beings. When socialising is reduced and rules for distancing are established, then other social beings like dogs or other pets in general take on an even greater meaning," Nestmann said.
But there is also a dark side to the surging demand for pets, with the number of dogs sold illegally in Germany more than doubling between 2019 and 2020, according to the German Animal Welfare Association.
Such dogs are typically bred abroad in poor conditions and then sold to German consumers for a premium price -- but often turn out to be sick or difficult to handle, leading to them being abandoned.
Illegal trade thriving
"Demand is insanely high and all the animal welfare organisations have practically no animals left. Of course, this means that the illegal trade is thriving," said Berlin shelter spokeswoman Annette Rost.
Marti, a one-and-a-half-year-old Staffordshire terrier mix, was imported illegally from Romania and then kept locked in a cellar before being brought to the shelter, where he is being treated for balance and coordination issues and other health problems.
Prospective owners are often lured by puppies like Marti because of the "beautiful colours that are so popular on Instagram" but are unable to cope when they grow bigger, said Xenia Katzurke, behavioural therapist for dogs at the shelter.
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The pandemic in general is leading to a lot of people "getting an animal without thinking... about what will happen when the pandemic is over and their life returns to normal", according to Rost.
That shouldn't be a problem for Markus Salomon and his family, who have already gotten used to Uschi stealing food from their bins, barking over their conversations and jumping on the table at mealtimes.
Daughter Annelie, 14, described her new companion as "very lively, cheeky... but also sensitive", bringing a welcome distraction from home
schooling for her and sister Sophie, nine.
And if life ever does return to normal and the family are allowed to travel abroad again, Uschi is small enough to fit in their hand luggage.