This is why we prefer the company of pets to intimate unions


Weary of dating, some singles find pet ownership helps fill the relationship void.

Photo credit: Pexel

What you need to know:

  • I find socialising a bit tasking beyond going to work and occasionally hanging out with my friends outside for a short while. When I get home, I prefer to be alone with Elvis (cat).
  • Most pets are adorable, affectionate and loyal that some pawrents end up making unconventional life decisions such as putting love on the back burner and not having children.

By nature, humans are social beings. Right from birth, we are wired to seek connection and interaction with fellow humans in intimate relationships. An infant seeks its mother for breastfeeding, a child seeks its parents for comfort when troubled and adults seek each other out for love and companionship. Mutual trust, emotional availability and vulnerability, shared life experiences and a sense of security are common desires among human beings.

Much of our socialisation comes from interacting with other people, which forms the basis of who we are as individuals and how we conduct ourselves while being part of a larger society.

But there is a growing class of individuals who are actively choosing to deprioritise intimate relationships with fellow human beings, and pets are their replacement of choice. Often, their social batteries do not last beyond interacting with colleagues at work and the rare meet-ups with family and friends before they want to run back to their private spaces.

They choose to spend more time with things that soothe and give them peace and mental stability as an alternative to nurturing healthy familial, platonic or romantic relationships.

Pet keeping is a fast-growing lifestyle trend in Kenya. Pet owners choose animals based on their breed and pedigree, as the pets reflect the owner’s lifestyle and reputation. In essence, the pet takes the place of either a husband, parent or child.

To some pet owners, popularly referred to as pawrents, keeping animals in their homes offers psychological benefits they would not have obtained from human interactions. This is the opinion held by Nairobi-based Counseling Psychologist Mr Nelson Saitu who states that pet companionship has upsides that human relationships can’t offer.

“Sometimes pets are prescribed for war veterans to calm them down, and even in our practice, prescribing pets to clients is becoming a thing. Mainly it is about the comfort they offer. Pets can be very soothing, loving and non-judgmental. They don’t talk back or project their values, culture or religion on their owners, and don’t speak without understanding situations, or give nonverbal reactions. Pets help a person reconnect with themselves through self-expression,” says Mr Saitu.

Mr Abdikarim Hussein, a New Media journalist and social butterfly with a following of 21,000 on Facebook, is a pawrent. Occasionally, he regales his followers with tales of his rescue pet cat, Elvis, including his randy behaviour across the neighbourhood.

“I’ve had Elvis for three years now since I rescued him from a drainage culvert. It was so small and I feared he would die of starvation. I live alone and my life changed when I brought him home. For one, he soothes my mind. Whenever you find me at home, I am less stressed especially when Elvis is beside me while watching a movie. I find socialising a bit tasking beyond going to work and occasionally hanging out with my friends outside for a short while. When I get home, I prefer to be alone with Elvis,” said Mr Hussein, an avid member of the Cat Lovers Kenya group.

Additionally, Mr Hussein revealed how Elvis initially disrupted his love life saying, “My relationships with women was affected. I interacted with women who ended up saying they have cat phobias and allergies when they visited my house and found Elvis. But see, Elvis is a permanent fixture in my life. I feel safer with him around and would never get rid of him just to protect a long-term relationship with a woman. A cat’s lifespan is between 10 and 15 years. I feel it would be so hard for a romantic relationship to last that long in this era we live in,” he opines.

But love can be alluring and blinding, just as some decisions can be temporary. Despite Mr Hussein’s opinion that any of his romantic relationships wouldn’t last as long as Elvis’ life, he ended up falling in love with a woman who made peace with the fact that Elvis will always be in his life. He revealed that he first had to see how his girlfriend interacted with Elvis and when she became accepting of the cat, he allowed their relationship to deepen into a serious commitment. The couple is now about to celebrate their first anniversary.

While Elvis initially disrupted Mr Hussein’s love life, in the case of Ms Naomi Mutua, a Public Relations practitioner who pawrents seven cats and fosters and rescues several others, balance continues to be key for her when handling relationships.

“Cats are very interesting animals. They are interesting to observe and be around. They are just different. I can’t really compare the nature of their companionship to the relationships I have with people because humans and pets have different qualities and bring different things to the table.

I think, more than anything, it is because I grew up around pets. I am comfortable having them in my home. There are times I hang out with people but whenever I see a cat, I will always approach it and try to befriend it.

Animals are less complex and judgmental, but humans have qualities that animals don’t have,” explains Ms Mutua.

She went on to reveal that even as she maintains a balance between human and pet interactions, she appreciates that she prefers her cats because they are “all different, have unique personalities and different needs, so it is interesting to hang out and interact with them.”

It is because most pets are adorable, affectionate and loyal that some pawrents end up making unconventional life decisions such as putting love on the back burner and not having children.

In 2018, Boise State University, a public research university in Idaho, America, published a research paper on why people opt to become pet parents. 27 per cent of her respondents turned out to be pet owners who revealed they deliberately chose pets over having children because they perceived their pet companions as emotional, thinking individuals, and this led them to develop a parent identity towards them. They added that they used terms such as ‘parent’, ‘child’, ‘kids’ and ‘guardians’ when referring to their relationships with their pets.

The research also found that in modern societies across the world, instances of people choosing to be child free encouraged the increase of pet parents.

Kelvin Okumu, a Nairobi based media company owner, is a pet parent to two white cats, Snow, aged four, and Flick, aged a year and a half. Confirming that his relationship status is “as single as a dollar bill”, he revealed that he loves his cats more than some people in his life, and that he is overly concerned with the wellbeing and safety of his pets.

“I love my pets more than some people out here. People can disappoint you and break your heart but a pet that loves you will not. My pets are my life. They don’t satisfy the place of human companionship but they fill an emotional void. For instance, I do feel like I’m needed and loved while at home. They keep me grounded,” states Mr Okumu.

He adds that he is currently single and searching, but his choice of a partner will be determined by whether the potential romantic partner is accepting of pets. This is based on a personal experience where he decided “anyone who is cruel to pets is a huge red flag” and would never remain in his life.

“My decision to keep pets dictates how I live. For example, I can never choose a life partner who doesn’t like pets and would never want anyone to make me choose between them and my pets. I will always pick my pets over anyone else. There are four billion women out here, I can get one who loves pets, right? They dictate my life a lot, even where I live in Nairobi. Is an apartment pet friendly? If not, I leave,” continued Mr Okumu.

He reiterates that he is open to a relationship but quickly adds that he is also okay with being single for the next 10 years as long as his cats are around. In other words, intimate relationships are not a priority for him right now.

He further explained that his pets afford him companionship and peace of mind especially when he returns home and finds them waiting for him and needing his attention, which helps him relieve the day’s stress.

“Any cat parent will tell you they consider their pet as part of their family. Every time I remember I have some animals somewhere waiting for me to get home, it gives me peace. There are times I get home exhausted, and I find them at the door, eager for my attention. I would recommend pets to anyone who is stressed about life,” Mr Okumu says.

But pawrenting comes with financial implications. Some pawrents spend lavishly on their animals in terms of healthcare, feeding, housing and travel. The Royal Pets is a Kahawa Sukari-based pet lodge in Nairobi. Its founder, Mr Roy Oliver Oduor, also sells high end pet accessories and caters to his clients’ pet import and export needs. He has a group of pawrents who are quite ‘extra.’

“I have seen clients who treat their pets as their only family. They are not interested in conventional relationships like marriage or parenting. I find that they are different from other pet owners who have families because they go to every length to ensure their pets have everything they need to be comfortable. They travel with the pets everywhere, except to work,” explained Mr Oduor.

“In terms of cost of accessories, it depends on what the pet is getting. Modern food dispensers cost about Sh32,000. They are expensive because they are automatic and they feed the pets on time when the owner is not around. Kennels and travel cages are also quite pricey. Big travel cages for dogs can cost between Sh70,000 and Sh85,000 and kennels made of plastic can go for up to Sh90,000. Pet carriers cost upwards of Sh85,000. They are costly because they can be carried into the plane, so there are aviation standards that must be incorporated,” added Mr Oduor.

A pet stay at his lodge costs an average of Sh1,300 a night, and Mr Oduor may also be requested to handle the pets’ veterinarian visits. He says his clients pay Sh3,000 for consultations at the vet, while treatment costs anywhere between Sh5,000 and Sh10,000 per trip.

Clients who are more attached to their pets end up spending more on their pets’ vet visits compared to pet owners with families. In his opinion, such attached pet owners end up spending much more on animals to ensure their longevity than what a parent would spend on their child.

But what makes some people become too attached to pets to the point of shunning interactions with humans? Psychologist Mr Saitu explains that in some instances, people turn to pets as a source of comfort after experiencing trauma or abuse.

“Anyone coming out of traumatic experiences with human beings mostly doesn’t want to bond with humans anymore. I would understand that.

I experienced the worst of human beings when I was young and for a very long time, I kept pets. In my adult life, I haven’t kept any because of apartment rules that prohibit pet keeping. But in my rural home I keep cats and dogs.

“I understand why people do it. Pets love you and they know not to disturb you when they sense you are not in a good mood. People turn to pets because they see that pets will not hurt or betray or cheat on them like human beings did. They don’t talk back or give unsolicited advice,” explained Mr Saitu.

Mr Saitu advises pet owners to find balance between pet keeping and maintaining human relationships, or else they run the risk of forming negative attachments to animals and missing out on the wisdom imparted in human interactions.

“This negative attachment may have a calming effect on a pet owner’s nervous system but pets are not meant to take care of your problems. They are meant to give you a safe space so you can find solutions to your problems. Pet owners who fail to find solutions to their life challenges become over reliant on the animals. This can affect their confidence and self-esteem. Therapy might be needed because we are trained to listen to and help such individuals overcome psychological issues that drove them to negative attachments to pets.”