Dreaming of Dogs (and other creatures!)
A kid who longs for a pet is a central theme in many of my books. From Joe in the Undead Pets series who wishes for a dog on a magical Ancient Egyptian amulet and ends up with some bothersome zombie pets... To Evie in the H.E.A.R.T books who aches to adopt stray pup Fudge, in the hope that it will soften the loneliness of moving to a new town.
Like Evie, I was often the outsider. The new kid in school with the strange accent and different ideas. I longed for a dog. For the cuddles. The companionship. And the consistent comfort of having a playmate who would want to be my friend.
The benefits of pet ownership are immeasurable. Perhaps, most importantly, are the life skills you learn. Whether it's walking a dog, chopping veggies for a guinea pig, cleaning out a goldfish tank, picking up poo, mopping up vomit, training a pup not to chew your shoes... The responsibility of pet ownership helps you develop tolerance, forgiveness, empathy...
In return you get a companion who will always be there for you. Until it isn't. And that's another vital life lesson. Coping with loss and grief when a pet dies, is preparation for the sadness we'll all face in our lives when we lose someone we love.
But a pet is so much more than a trial-run for life's harder lessons. Studies have shown that pets can reduce stress levels, and lower anxiety, and improve children's social skills - developing co-operation, trust and communication. Owning an animals gives kids something to talk about; what child isn't proud of their pet!
There are physical benefits, too. A pet can get kids outside and make them more active. And potentially even improve their reading abilities... There's been a lot of research about the benefits of animals in the classroom. Not least, the idea of using dogs as listeners, encouraging children to read aloud to them.
And it's not just dogs who can have a big impact. Listening to a cat's calming purr has been shown to reduce blood pressure, while other studies have suggested that children who grow up with pets are less likely to develop allergies. One study even showed that kids with diabetes who cared for a pet fish, were more disciplined when it came to testing their own glucose levels and managing their condition.
Of course not every family will have the time or money or circumstances to be able to keep a pet. But there are simpler ways to get the benefits of caring for critters without taking on an animal. Whether it's walking a neighbour's dog, or just feeding the birds and putting out water for hedgehogs, or by adopting some garden snails to watch, or by creating your own wormery, nature provides loads of opportunities for kids to find companionship with creatures.
And perhaps that's the greatest gift of animals. They allow children a taste of independence and freedom. When you consider how restrictive and regimented most children's lives are, being allowed to choose their own pet, and to care for it, is empowering.
So a shout out to all the pets who have enhanced my life...
Thanks to Fluffy, my hardy rabbit who somehow survived several harsh Scottish winters, and who always listened to my stories.
And to Bullseye my brother's tiny mouse who cost 50p, but ended up costing ten times as much in vet's bills!
And to Honey and Fred our childhood kittens, who arrived no bigger than the palm of our hands, and ended up being such big characters.
Not forgetting Rover, my Granny's terrifyingly fierce ginger cat, who liked to hide in the curtains and pounce on my ankles!
And to Tom and Jinnie, my secret college rescue cats, when pets weren't allowed but I got them anyway.
And Oscar, the unwanted kitten with the oddly-shaped tail, who I brought home from my first junior reporter's job - the lady who brought him into our office told me she'd drown him otherwise.
And to Snaily, the Giant African Land Snail, my daughter's much-adored, first pet, bought on the day she started school and proudly displayed for Show and Tell.
And to Fluffy, Cheerleader, and Todd, my kids' rabbits, who couldn't bear to live together, resulting in several giant 'hutch and runs,' lined-up, side by side!
And to our fish, Silver and Goldie, who eventually became one (the bigger fish ate the smaller one! Eek!)
And to Marty. Our little black cat, who purrs like a train, and is scared of carrier bags, and is (thankfully) the worst hunter in the world.
And to all the other pets that belong to friends and family... To beautiful Millie, my friend Mary's collie-cross, who has the prettiest, smiliest face and always makes things better. And to Lola-dog the cockapoo who loves a tummy tickle and a hug whenever you meet her on the street, and to big fluffy dog Ben, who lives down the road, and even though he got bashed by a burglar, still likes a cuddle.
And finally, a salute to the legendary pets from the past, whose stories I grew up on...
My mum's childhood terrier, Teddy, who liked to chase motorbikes - a little too much! He chased one onto the train tracks and sadly was no more. And Simba, my newlywed parents' Alsatian puppy who was rejected by the police for being too gentle. And to Dylan, my husband's dog, who would take himself off for walks, and would call for his doggie pals by barking at their doors.
So many pets. So many stories. The life lessons I've learnt from them would fill a book. In fact, they already have.