For many who bring animal companions in to their lives, they are a mainstay, a source of comfort, support, conversation and provide a purpose. Particularly, for the population we as therapists serve, their presence can make the difference between stability and decompensation.
Benefits of Animal Companionship
Reduction of anxiety and depression.
A reason to get out of bed in the morning to walk and feed the animal.
A listening and non-judgmental ear.
Assisting with socialization with other humans.
Bonding with others who care for animals, as they may meet in a dog park, for example
Lowering of blood pressure and heart rate by stroking the animal.
Exercise as they take the animal for a walk or run.
Playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.
Teaching responsibility and compassion to children, as they learn to care for the animal.
Knowing that they can make a difference in the life of the animal by providing a loving home
Many treatment programs offer animal assisted therapy, such as incorporating horses, dogs and cats into clinical interventions for those with mental health challenges, PTSD, addictions and physical illness.
Andrew Weil, MD touts the benefits of having animals in the workplace, indicating that in his own office, “Staffers are encouraged to bring their dogs and have reported that nothing breaks the ice at client meetings like the presence of a friendly pooch.”
What Happens When the Beloved Four Legged, Winged or Finned Creature Dies?
The same process that we move through when facing the death of human family or friends, exists, with one distinct difference. The loss is often minimized with the comment, “That was just an animal, why are you making such a big deal out of it?” as well as “You can always get another one.”
While perhaps well meaning, it is lacking in compassion and exacerbates the pain and may lengthen the grief process.
Throughout the years, I have needed to say goodbye to non-human companions such as turtles, goldfish, a rabbit, dogs and cats. Although, as a child, I didn’t understand the dynamics of both the finality of the physical loss and ongoing (within the scope of my own evolving spiritual beliefs) contact with those human and non-human loved ones, I still grieved in my own way.
Our childhood dog named Hukki had an uncanny way of knowing when each of us was coming home from school or work. She was my father’s running buddy and our confidante who would listen really well without judging.
With one exception, each animal died because of advanced age. The most recent, Merlin, who was a Schnauzer-Terrier mix, crossed over the Rainbow Bridge likely 15 years ago. He had developed bladder stones and diabetes, such that he required twice daily doses of insulin.
When I would give him his injections, sometimes he would nip at me, so I learned to move quickly. After a few months, the veterinarian who provided care for him said that Merlin’s condition would only worsen and that his quality of life would diminish dramatically and the end could be painful.
He offered the option of euthanasia and reluctantly, I took it. On the day that it occurred, my then teenaged son and I went to the office where Merlin had actually enjoyed visiting, since he was so social and liked playing with the other animals.
We had explained to him what was about to occur and he seemed to understand. That was my interpretation. The procedure itself was mercifully quick and we were given as much time as we needed both before and afterward. To this day, I remember them all, Hukki, Emmy Lou, Baby, Thumper, Amira and Merlin with love.