The ins and outs of animal ownership in Finland.
The figures are staggering – of the 500,000 human inhabitants that call greater Helsinki home, the number of animals kept as companions are in the tens of thousands, according to a report by the City of Helsinki. Pretty amazing, when you think about space constraints and the responsibilities involved with being a pet owner – not to mention the considerable cost. Yet pet owners are undeterred. Helsinki dwellers are great fans of furry family members, regardless of their working hours and living in apartments. So, what drives people to share their lives with animals?
Simply put, the City of Helsinki pet ownership guide states that a pet is “a close family member, a part of nature that is near us and an irreplaceable friend”. Could it be the desire to commune with nature that motivates city dwellers to cohabitate with an animal? Luckily, Helsinki is a city that has many fenced dog parks dotting the cityscape, with separate parks for large and smaller breeds. Dog parks are not only valuable spaces for Fido to run free but also provide chances for dog owners to meet and socialise. Many dog parks also provide valuable information about dog sitters, dog walkers and even doggy day care services that you might urgently need for your beloved furry family member.
All this love and care lavished on four-legged friends can befuddle some foreigners. Recently, an African student (who declined to be named) looked on incredulously as a lady pushed a pram containing three merry looking Chihuahuas inside. Turning to look at me he said, “Only in Finland,” before bursting into laughter. When stopping to chat with the lady, she smiled and acknowledged the ridiculousness of the image she was presenting but explained, “When there’s this much wet snow on the ground it’s impossible for my little dogs to go for a walk easily. That’s why they sit and I push. I get exercise and they get fresh air, so it works for both of us!”
Pet store growth
Musti & Mirri, a local pet store released their profits as of September 2013 and it showed a growth of 105 per cent from the earlier quarter, staggering numbers considering the economical slump that has hit Finland hard. Why is it that in every other industry there has been negative growth but in pet care such remarkable numbers? Perhaps it’s because pet owners don’t hold back when it comes to their animals well being. Take Pirjo and Arja Neväläinen, twin sisters that own a little dog called Pikku Ukko, or “Little Man”. To say that Pikku Ukko has a good life would be quite an understatement, as the sisters lavish him with a special raw diet for his stomach ailment, take him on hour long walks daily and don’t think twice to eschewing public transport for taxis if it meant an easier time for the dog. Why all this effort?
“It’s definitely a lifestyle thing,” Pirjo answers. “Nowadays it’s a pleasure to come home knowing that there is such a happy creature waiting for you. Not to mention how much healthier we both are because of the daily hour long walks, not to mention the two shorter ones we take with him.” But has having a dog benefitted them in other ways? “Certainly, other dog owners stop and talk to you, and of course its easier to start a conversation with strangers when you have a dog as a go-between.”
Sharing lives together
With all the benefits of improved socialisation, better health and having to get out there with your dog it starts to make sense why many Helsinki dwellers choose to share their lives with an animal. But dogs and cats are not the limit. There is also a growing popularity for keeping exotic animals such as ferrets, hedgehogs, rats, salamanders, fish, tortoises, lizards and even spiders as pets. Owning such creatures, which might require less effort in terms of walks and grooming, is surprisingly pricey.
A workmate who was getting her daughter a pet terrapin confided that the price of the whole set up would come to close to 600 euro! When asked what her motivation was for getting her daughter such a pricy pet, she shrugged and said, “That she could watch and care for something living and have company I guess.” A noble enough reason, to teach responsibility to children, but with the lifespan of terrapins being a healthy 20-25 years, that is quite a long requirement of care. Perhaps for this reason the City of Helsinki’s pet ownership brochure also cautions would-be pet owners that “prospective owners should carefully weigh whether they can provide a good and responsible home for the animal. Ultimately, it is the adults who bear the responsibility for the welfare of the animal.” At least with a terrapin there would be no walks in the rain involved.
A serious endeavour
Pet ownership is definitely taken quite seriously in Finland. Have you noticed how pet stores here do not sell puppies or kittens, as you might find in other countries? That’s because in order to buy a particular breed of dog or cat you must find a kennel. And only after several visits where the kennel owner finds out what sort of hours and living space is available for the dog or cat that you’re after, might you be able to purchase an animal. This is a far cry from puppy mills that are commonly operating across the border where a purebred puppy, kitten or even ferret could be had at a fraction of the price, and with far dire consequences. When your purchase a pet from a kennel in Finland, the kennel owner generally is responsible for the lineage and health of the animal sold, as well as its mother. They provide you with information, contacts for groomers, vets and helpful advice for minor ailments your pet may be suffering from. The kennel owner will also be the person to tell you whether pet ownership may not be the best idea for you.
Useful links and information to dog adoption
Pet ownership in finland /
Viiki animal shelter:
Homeless animals looking for new families:
Offering help for re-homing:
At the same time however, there are a growing number of Finns that choose to adopt or rehome pets that have fallen on hard times, with animal shelters like Viikin Animal Shelter in Helsinki and Tunturisusi that even links you with homeless dogs in Spain looking for loving homes. Finns are very active in taking in such animals that are often suffering psychologically and physically from a number of ailments that may require long term care and a great deal of patience. Why all this care and effort? Perhaps because of the strong ties many Finns have to nature and to caring for the environment. A well-known Finnish saying goes like this: “The best feature of most human beings is their dogs.”
Yet it’s worth bearing in mind that while a pet is a wonderful addition to the family and an important part of the family pack, it still is an animal. A news report by YLE carried this statement: “A dog cannot feel empathy or love humans as another human being can.” As much as we want Fido or Fluffy the cat to understand what we are pouring out to them after a tough day, he or she might just be wondering when we’re going to feed them dinner. Still, this doesn’t mean that we love our animals any less. Owning a pet makes life a little more chaotic, but in a good way. Perhaps a quote by Charles F. Doran sums it all up best:
“Folk will know how large your soul is, by the way you treat a dog.”