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Animal magic! Owners on the pets that transformed them

Published 02/01/2016

Top dog: Julie Blair with some of her nine Cavalier spaniels at home in north Belfast
Top dog: Julie Blair with some of her nine Cavalier spaniels at home in north Belfast
Loving bond: journalist David Roy with his rescue cat Lola
Family effort: David Bradley with Morghan and Fintan along with some of their pets
The family go out for a walk
Happy home: Gemma Butler with Theo

Pets can make a huge difference to the lives of their owners. Andrew Johnston speaks to four owners about how their animals turned their world around in 2015.

‘I’m so loved by my little crew every single day’

After losing her beloved Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Sherry, eight years ago, Belfast housewife Julie Blair (42) eventually clawed her way back from depression by rehoming not one but nine rescued Cavaliers in 2015. She credits them with saving her life. She says:

Sherry had many problems that Cavaliers suffer from. Over the 11 years we had her, we spent roughly £20,000 on her vet care, but sadly, she developed an inoperable tumour and had to be put to sleep.

I was prepared for losing her, as she had been sick for a long time, but when it happened, I was distraught.

I couldn't cope, and I fell into a deep depression that I couldn't share with anyone.

I felt stupid because so many people said 'It's just a dog.'

Eight long years passed, until I saw Cavaliers in Need NI on Facebook earlier in 2015.

They're a charity group who rescue dogs, mostly Cavaliers. I bit the bullet and contacted them, and quickly realised they understood me.

I was reluctant to be so hurt again, but the very next day, a pair of Cavaliers called Holly and Bailey became available.

I always said that when Sherry went, I would have two Cavaliers together.

I kind of felt she sent them. They became the heart of my home, a reason to get up and get them out.

Then, along came Noodles and Boo. Noodles has heart and kidney failure, and Boo has Cushing's disease.

I honestly feel the more I help them, the more it helps something inside me.

Next came Chloe and Cassie, who were kept outside for over 10 years as breeding females. They were given to Cavaliers in Need, almost deaf and blind, for possibly the last few months of their lives in a loving home.

They are lucky girls, because some breeders shoot old females who can no longer have pups. It's cheaper than getting a vet to put them to sleep.

Next was Honeybuns, who has single-handedly eaten my whole house - blinds, door frames, electrical cords and knickers! Then Blossom came from a backyard breeder. She was called 'Breeding Bitch 1' before I got her.

I'd no idea that these people who breed these amazing little dogs don't even have the decency to give them names.

Lastly, a month ago came another Chloe. She was left incontinent after a car accident and was taken to a vet to be put to sleep. She's perfectly healthy, but drips pee because her bladder doesn't work. She's now called Chloe Pee in our house.

For someone who is terrified of losing another dog, I'm pretty sure I will lose at least four in 2016, if not more.

But I'm healed knowing that they are cared for and loved. I get it back from them tenfold.

I've never been loved so much as I am by my little crew every single day. We moved this year to a new home on three acres of land simply for our dogs. They have an amazing life, even if it's only for a few months.

I've come to realise a lot of people who make the best rescuers at some point needed rescued themselves."

'Lola is very affectionate... she's perfect for us'

Belfast-based journalist David Roy (37) has always done his own thing. But rescue cat Lola has shown him and partner Karen Starrett (35) who really calls the shots in their house. He says:

About two months ago we adopted Lola from her previous owner, who was moving to pet-unfriendly accommodation.

He got her from Assisi Animal Sanctuary in Co Down as a rescue kitten.

Lola is now two, and has one 'cloudy' eye as the result of an unknown incident before her arrival at Assisi.

My partner Karen took Lola in while I was out of the country with work.

Apparently, no one else wanted her because they found her semi-functional eye aesthetically displeasing.

Karen is a sucker for a hard luck story, so of course, she decided Lola had to come and live with us.

We're both dog lovers at heart, but can't have one because of our work schedules, so when we bought our first house last year, we talked about getting a cat as a compromise.

Having a cat has turned me into an early riser, as Lola wakes up shortly after dawn and immediately needs attention and food.

It has also raised productivity at work, as I need to get home in good time to feed her in the evenings if Karen works late shifts.

She has helped make our new house feel like a real family home. Waking up in the morning to find Lola copping a quick snooze on top of our duvet has become something we really look forward to.

Although Lola was previously an 'outside' cat, we've been keeping her in at night when it's been particularly stormy, so on those occasions, the meowing begins early and doesn't stop until she's been attended to.

We don't have a cat flap yet, so there's a lot of opening and closing the back door when Lola needs out or in.

We're basically waiters and doormen to her!

When she's been out all night, we always get anxious that she won't reappear in the mornings, but so far, so good.

And she's always very affectionate when she does return - we think she loves us really.

There was a funny incident when I let Lola in the back door, only to see her again moments later outside on the windowsill.

I accidentally let in one of the neighbours' cats, another jet-black moggy, who looks pretty much identical to Lola except for her 20/20 vision. The real Lola was not amused!

Obviously, there are reputable breeders out there, but when there are so many 'rejected' animals in desperate need of being rehomed for free, I don't see why you would ever consider buying a cat or dog.

But clearly it is a big problem in Northern Ireland, given the number of pets that end up in our sanctuaries.

At some point in the future, we would love to give a loving home to a rescue dog.

However, that won't happen until our schedules allow us to provide the care and attention it would require.

And of course, Lola will have to be fully briefed first. After all, she's the boss now."

‘Having the variety and the unusual species makes coming to our house popular with the kids’ friends’

Architect David Bradley (46) lives in Newtownards with wife Laura (48), daughter Morghan (12), and son Fintan (9), where their ever-growing menagerie of pets — including latest additions Batman and Boris, the rescued guinea pigs — is teaching the children confidence and compassion. He says:

Batman and Boris were handed into a pet shop last November by a young teenager saying they no longer wanted them.

The shop contacted wildlife rescuer Debbie Nelson, aka Debbie Doolittle, and my children offered to take them when we were visiting her house a few weeks ago.

We have also recently taken in two hedgehogs from Debbie, that were disturbed from hibernation.

We’ve called them Sparkle and Conker, and they will be released into our garden in the springtime.

Our first rescued animals were about 16 years ago, two young, female, feral cats that were living beneath mobile buildings my wife worked in.

Laura managed to capture the two, who we called Tippy Toes and Mo Mo, before Rentokil could, as they were classed as ‘pests’.

We still have them.

Our next rescue, six years ago, was Murphy, an abandoned, five-week-old Labrador-Rottweiler-Collie cross that was discovered by a friend walking on Killough beach.

After a few days of noone coming forward to claim him, we took him to keep our ageing Scottish deerhound, Mungo, company. Since then, we have picked up the pace.

We came home from holiday four summers ago and gained an extra two ferrets, Buster and Winkle, again from Debbie.

We also have Bernard the bearded dragon living above the hedgehogs. Bernard was handed in to Debbie, as he was uncared for by the previous owner due to a change in their circumstances.

The only animals we sought out to purchase or adopt ourselves were our six free-range hens and Mungo, and that was because we knew that as a breed, the Scottish deerhound was on the vulnerable list in the UK and Ireland.

There was also Derek, a black-and-white kitten from a friend’s litter, as he was cute, a fish tank of cloud minnows from a friend and another two ferrets, Bandit and Casper, from Debbie!

All the rescued animals completely complement the menagerie we have, and are only taken in with that in consideration, which really means will Murphy tolerate a bearded dragon licking him, a hedgehog hissing and spiking at him or a ferret nipping him?

Having animals is a responsibility, no doubt.

But looking at our children growing up with lots of animals, we can see how confident and compassionate they are, having handled, cleaned out and fed them all, for as long as they could.

We also use the keeping of animals as a way of explaining the responsibilities that we all have towards not just them, but also towards other people. I think we have enough to look after just now, and certainly, when it comes to cleaning them out, the kids definitely think so!

But having the variety and the unusual species always makes coming to our house popular with their friends — as long as they like animals, of course.

'We fell in love with Theo the minute we met him... he's made us a family'

When coffee shop supervisor Gemma Butler (32) and partner Daniel Wain (also 32) moved in together in Belfast last year, they knew something was missing from their new home. Gemma believes rescue dog Theo completed their home. She says:

We rescued Theo from Almost Home Animal Rescue in Moira last October. He's a collie cross and was 14 weeks old when we got him.

We went to the sanctuary to see some young pups, but when we went to meet them, we saw Theo being kept separately nearby. He had our attention a lot more than the other, younger pups.

We learnt that Theo had been rehomed with a family, who already owned a 12-year-old cat, but the cat had been quite upset and afraid of Theo, so they felt they had to return him.

I think Daniel and I fell in love with him the minute we were introduced to him, and it felt like he was meant to join our family, or more accurately, to make us a family.

We had just bought our house a month beforehand. From the minute Theo got here, it was clear he was happy and comfortable in his new home.

We already forget what it was like living here without him. He made our house the home it is now.

Having Theo to come home to is the best part of my day. He's just so full of life, happy, fun and mischievous.

It's been a pleasure to watch him grow in confidence, and grow in general!

I think Theo is as affectionate and loving as he is because he knows we're his family and this is his home. Having Theo in my life is a gift, but he is a part of our family, the heart of it.

Owning a pet is something that requires 100% commitment, and an animal should only be brought into a home when everyone is committed to looking after it.

Theo's needs are just as important as mine, and I don't think a lot of people realise that.

I have already recommended Almost Home and rescuing a pet to several friends, who have been interested in getting a cat or dog.

I would never consider going to a breeder when there are so many lovely animals in need of a good home that have not had the start in life they deserve.

By following Almost Home while we were getting Theo, I have to say I'm shocked by the volume of animals they receive, and that's just one rescue centre.

I was honestly unaware of the severity of the problem previously.

Since having Theo, I've become even more horrified by the cruelty some people are capable of committing against defenceless animals.

I would love to see harsher sentences handed out to animal abusers, especially here in Northern Ireland.

Daniel and I will absolutely rehome another dog at some point, but I think for the time being, we are happy with our little family as it is.

But Theo will have to teach another pup the ropes some day."

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