When Ehsan Kaveh was studying for his medical school exams in the Iranian capital, the stress was getting to both him and his wife, Rima, an IT specialist. But a family friend, a veterinarian, thought he had a solution — a snow-white Persian cat named Eli.
"He said 'Try keeping this cat for two weeks and see how your tension will vanish. Then decide to keep her or give her back,'" Rima recounted.
Two weeks later, the vet asked if he should come collect Eli.
"No way. We're keeping her," was the answer.
The Kavehs are among a growing number of mostly affluent Iranians who are welcoming pets — mostly cats and dogs — into their homes despite the disapproval of the country's traditionalists.
The animals provide a respite for many Iranians at a difficult moment of economic and geopolitical uncertainty, escalating tensions with regional rival Saudi Arabia, and mounting casualties among Iranian militiamen on the battlefields of Syria.
Although there are no official statistics, anecdotal evidence points to a hike in pet ownership.
The number of clinics and hospitals dedicated to pets has more than tripled in Tehran in the last three years. The facilities have popped up in the cities of Mashhad, Shiraz and Esfahan. At least two "hotels" offer temporary housing for pets in Tehran.
Grocery stores offer ever-expanding shelves of pet food, a far cry (or bark) from the days when a gourmet four-legged companion had nowhere to turn.
"Four years ago we started selling food for pets, and we're having to restock it all the time and at a faster rate," said Rasool Shirmohammadi, a grocery shop manager in Tehran's central Geisha neighborhood.
Social observers believe the rise in pet ownership reflects, in part, a turning away from large family sizes, a result of the punishing international sanctions that have ravaged Iran's economy and forced many couples to think twice about the big families encouraged by Iran's leadership.
"The educated in Iranian society are anticipating bad economic days to come, so small-size or zero-children families in the middle and upper middle class are bringing a pet inside their house or apartment," said professor Fariborz Raisdana, an econometrics researcher in Tehran.
He added that, with public life censored and the city streets too crowded with cars for children to play and socialize, pets bring a welcome measure of comfort.
"Pets bring happiness for isolated Iranian families, giving them the chance to take refuge in their pets as friends who are faithful, trustworthy and reliable — qualities they don't always find among their fellow human beings," he said.
It's a development that has left Iran's theologians wagging their fingers at all the wagging tails.
"Islam teaches us to respect animals, but these days people regard pets as equal to their children in their home. This is not correct," said Hasan Rashidizadeh, director of the Jafarieh seminary in Tehran.
"Culturally, we need to manage this society and teach people not fulfill a true need with a false solution, like having a pet in the home," he added.
But even on the pavement just outside the seminary, at least one pet owner seemed unmoved by Rashidizadeh's admonishment.
"Why do I need more children? A dog can be, and has been, my child for the last seven years," said Mehdi Tehrani, gesturing at an energetic Shih Tzu he was walking with one of his two sons.
"This dog is my third child, and he's unwaveringly faithful and a good guardian."
Even those who can't bring pets home have found ways to join the pack.
Every day around noon, Sanaz Pourdavoud, an unemployed 33-year-old woman, walks to the Dialogue of Civilizations Park in northwestern Tehran, not far from a nuclear research reactor built by the United States in the 1960s.
She comes laden with three red bags filled with chunks of chicken liver and boneless fish mixed with carrots and noodles.
It's a feast for the 25 cats running eagerly on her tail, having temporarily abandoned their play among the park's elegant statues of Iranian scholars and arches reminiscent of Paris' Arc de Triomphe.
"I have a limited budget, but I spend all my pocket money for the animals," said Pourdavoud, estimating that she spent the equivalent of about $90 a month for cat food and medicine.
She also rushes to provide treatment whenever she receives information on abused or wounded animals.
"People can be savage. One time, I saved a cat that was being kicked around like a football by a bunch of boys," she said, as she bent down to stroke the cats around her, upon whom she has bestowed names such as Azhdar (Spear), Bahador (Warrior), and her favorite, Makhmal (Velvet).
Pourdavoud is often joined by her friend Fariba Hajdaei, an author of short stories. Although she can't afford to have a pet in her apartment, Hajdaei buys sausages or pet food at grocery stores to feed animals with her husband and son.
"Their beautiful faces help me forget the daily anxieties, social problems, bad news on television and elsewhere," she said.
Besides, Hajdaei said, the quasi-adopted pets have brought people together in unexpected ways.
"There hasn't been much dialogue between civilizations and religions lately, but here in this park, Muslims and Jews and other minorities, experience dialogue through cats," she said.
A case in point: She is Muslim, her friend Pourdavoud is Jewish.
"Maybe they should rename this place 'Dialogue of Cats' Park," she said.
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Bulos from Beirut.