Vet hopes Suffolk care homes will learn from Bob’s story

Belinda Johnston, founder of Our Special Friends, with her dogs Rolo and Otto
Belinda Johnston, founder of Our Special Friends, with her dogs Rolo and Otto

A vet who founded a charity to help keep vulnerable people and their pets together for as long as possible is hoping to raise awareness of the benefits of animal companionship.

Belinda Johnston was upset last month to learn about an elderly man in Scotland, known as Bob, whose care home was trying to evict his pet Miniature Schnauzer, citing a change in its pet policy.

The story of the heartbroken 87-year-old and his close companion Darkie received a great deal of publicity and an online petition set up to try and reverse the care home’s decision gained the support of more than 132,000 people.

Ms Johnston, founder of Our Special Friends, a Higham-based charity which aims to keep owners and their pets together through difficult times, hopes Bob’s story, which she says is not unusual, will help raise awareness of the importance of companion animals.

She believes there is a ‘disconnect’ between all the evidence about the health benefits associated with companion animals and the pet policies a lot of care homes have, or rather lack thereof.

“Where at all possible people who have got a companion animal supporting them in their older age, they’re like members of the family and, particularly if they’re bereft, it’s appropriate and important that those special relationships are maintained, not destroyed,” she said.

“It just needs a good policy in place and then it’s win, win, win for all involved.”

While many care homes are nervous about being overrun with animals, Ms Johnston says that does not happen in practice.

Similarly, she says many worry about the risk of falls and infection but evidence shows having pets actually reduces the number of incidents and, rather than creating extra work for staff, as many fear it will, those with pets, in fact, report being easier to run.

Ms Johnston said: “Despite the well-known benefits of animal companionship to human wellbeing, many care homes across the country, including many here in Suffolk, refuse to allow elderly residents to keep their pets with them and this causes great heartache and distress to them at what is often already a most difficult time.

“It also causes suffering to the animals concerned.”

As someone who campaigns for more robust care plans, she hopes to avoid ‘cruel’ situations like Bob’s arising.

“As our population ages, Bob’s plight highlights yet another challenge for older people and I believe it is very important to raise awareness of this growing problem and of potential solutions,” she said.

Find out more about Our Special Friends go to www.ourspecialfriends.org.