During my postgraduate studies I shared a flat with a girl and a cat. (No, this isn’t the start of a delightful limerick.)
This hideous cat was sick on my bed, destroyed my possessions and attacked my friends, and if it wasn’t let into my room every night at 3am it would sit outside screaming and then break something in the kitchen.
In my flatmate’s eyes, though, it was a precious bundle of fluff that could do no wrong and we argued about the evil thing more than we did the washing up or gas bill.
In many ways, bringing an animal into a shared living environment is no different to bringing an animal into a family home.
But, as Andrew Bucher, chief veterinary officer at pet supply company MedicAnimal, advises, this is only the case if it’s approached in a calm, balanced and universal manner - traits which, let’s be honest, are not always abundant in shared houses.
It’s not impossible to find a happy balance for all parties concerned - furry and otherwise - as long as you give the following careful consideration.
What’s your living situation like?
Is your home quiet and calm, or is there a lot of noise and a constant stream of visitors?
While cats and dogs can be sociable creatures they also have very highly-tuned senses and a continual barrage of sounds and smells can cause them a lot of stress.
“My last houseshare was very much a party house,” says Aaron Bailey, from London. “There were people coming and going all hours of the day and night. One of the girls had a cat and the poor thing spend all of its time hiding under the sofa.”
Do you have time for a pet?
One of the benefits of having a pet in a houseshare is that there’s likely to be someone around to look after it if you’re not there.
But this needs to be an exception rather than a rule.
“My housemate was single when he got a Maine coon cat, which are notorious for being high maintenance,” says Sarah Meadows, a writer from London.
“When my housemate got a boyfriend he spent all of his time at his flat leaving me to take care of it. He (the flatmate) often wouldn’t come home at the weekends, so I’d have to arrange my life around the cat. It caused a lot of resentment.”
Do you have the money for a pet?
Dogs and cats cost thousands of pounds of their lifetimes, factoring in food, vets bills and general other upkeep.
“If you decide not to insure your pet, do you have enough ‘ready cash’ to fork out £600-plus for an emergency, and possibly more if there is an ongoing problem?” asks Bucher.
This is what happened in George Sailing’s houseshare when his flatmate’s puppy became ill.
“She’d had the puppy for a few months and the living situation was absolutely fine, but then it emerged the dog had a chronic illness which would cost a fair whack each month to treat. She tried to get the rest of us to contribute to the vet costs but none of us could afford it and, harsh as it sounds, it wasn’t really our responsibility. It was a really sad, difficult situation.”
Can you commit to training and routine?
“Routine is absolutely pivotal with pets,” says Andrew. “The pet needs to know what to expect and when. Just as we lead our lives to a routine and find some stability in the process, so do our pets.”
To establish a household hierarchy your pet needs to see you as the ‘top dog’, which means you need to be the main food and walkies provider and be prepared to be ‘the bad guy’ if your pet tries to bend the rules with housemates.
“My dog Spag and I lived in a houseshare last year and he was forever trying to get on the sofa for cuddles with my housemates, which he knows isn’t allowed,” says Tim Nicholls, from Hereford.
“It was pretty tough, having to reprimand him all the time, and I began to feel like he liked my housemates more than me because of it, but I persevered. He’s now very well-behaved and knows that I’m the boss.”
Can you trust your housemates?
Even if you’re prepared to take 100% responsibility for the pet, your housemates will still play a significant role in your pet’s life.
“Road traffic accidents are the number one cause of cat death,” says Andrew. “Will your housemates remember to keep doors and windows shut?” Can you be sure they won’t mistakenly feed your pet something that’s potentially dangerous (such as chocolate for dogs) or let them come into contact with something harmful (such as lilies for cats)?
Of course, accidents and honest mistakes happen, but if you can’t trust your housemates to always consider your pet’s welfare, it’s not the right environment for them.
Keeping a pet in a houseshare is a situation that requires delicate balance, but if it’s done right it can be hugely rewarding for all concerned. The key is communication, reckons Kirsty Winskill, a business support administrator from Bristol.
“I was lodging with a couple of friends who have a German shepherd named Ripley. We kept each other updated with who’d fed her and when (she was very good at trying to manipulate extra meals out of us) and we were careful to communicate training: what words to use, what we were teaching her, and so on. Ripley loved it. She had loads of attention and walks and a familiar face with her when the others went away, and I had companionship and lots of hugs at the end of a stressful day. I’ve since moved out, but I visit her all the time."