The Highs and Lows of Companion Animal Ownership
With the estimated pet population in the UK standing at approximately 51 million, spanning 12 million households, it is evident we are a nation of animal lovers. The strong emotional bonds that we develop with our companion animals have been well documented with research dating back decades. Until recently, research into this bond has predominantly focused on the positive physical and mental health benefits of pet ownership. However, many current studies have offered conflicting results, with more focus now being on the negative impact of companion animal loss. With an estimated 44% of the general population being pet owners, it is vital that we understand both the positive and negative benefits of pet ownership.
Our companion animals are often viewed as fully fledged family members. Many of us place our animals at the centre of our universe. They become our best friend, the children we never had or the partner we lost along the way. In some instances, we may choose to confide in our pets in times of distress rather than our human relatives or friends. Through unconditional love our furry friends provide us with emotional stability and a reliable, calming support network. Their loyalty and companionship offer a constant source of comfort and affection, helping us to manage stress and complex life events. They give us a sense of purpose and meaning to our lives that some of us may not have without them.
Indirectly, our nonhuman companions may have a positive effect on our physical health through increased frequency of exercise and contact with nature. They give us the courage to venture to new places. In their company we find the confidence to interact with others. From this we gain opportunities for communication, helping us to widen our social support network and reduce feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression. All of which may make us less susceptible to life threatening diseases.
However, given the shorter life span of our companion animals, the day will inevitably come when we must face the world without them by our side. So what price do we pay, mentally and physically, when this bond is broken?
It has been suggested that the emotional bond between a human and their companion animal can be as intense as many human – human relationships. As a result, losing a companion animal can evoke the same responses as losing a human relative, partner or child. Often, the feelings of guilt, grief, anger, intrusive thoughts, and decisional regret that go hand in hand with the loss of a human companion also characterise the loss of a pet.
When someone close to us dies we are shown sympathy, granted time off work and offered condolences from members of our wider community. Our loss and related grief is recognised by society and we are allowed to work through our emotions in our own time, without fear of judgement. However, this may not be the case when we are faced with the loss of our beloved pets.
Many people suffering the loss of a companion animal experience disenfranchised grief. This can occur from a lack of understanding of the level of grief associated with the death of a pet. Much of society may not see the death as a legitimate loss. All too often bereaved owners are met with the insensitivity of comments such as ‘get on with it’, ‘it was just a pet’ or even ‘just get another one.’ When a loss is unrecognised or unacknowledged by society it can result in the bereaved feeling they are unable to express their grief. The outcome being increased grief severity and duration which can, in some cases, lead to higher levels of depression and anxiety.
Dealing with the loss of a pet and the resulting disenfranchised grief can be difficult enough, however there may be aspects that complicate the grief even further. When the time comes, many of us face the devastating decision to bring our pet’s suffering to an end through euthanasia. This may lead to feelings of guilt, doubt and the image of our beloved companion as they pass away.
The detrimental effect on mental health of losing a companion animal is reflected in the dramatic increase in the number of calls to Pet Bereavement helplines. Calls received by the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service alone has risen from 5968 in 2016 to 10925 in 2018, with the number of emails rising from 1936 to 4460 within the same period. This suggests we are either more willing to seek help for the distress we suffer after pet bereavement or at the very least are more aware of the support networks available. The devastating effects of losing a companion animal are clear. So, what can we do to aid our grieving process?
Create rituals for our pet
We deal with the loss of a human companion through rituals. We attend funerals, hold ceremonies and acknowledge anniversaries. These kinds of rituals are designed to help us with our grieving process. So do the same for your pet. Hold a ceremony in a place special to both you and your pet. Plant a tree in your garden. A living tribute may be a warm reminder of the times you shared, for years to come.
Talk to someone
There will be some people out there who, due to a lack of personal experience, do not understand the feelings you are going through. However, there will be a whole host of others who do. Find someone you feel comfortable sharing your loss with. Alternatively call or email a support helpline or join a support group.
Gradually dispose of possessions
Take your time when dealing with your pets possessions. Gradually move them to a different place in the house and when you feel ready pack them away or give them to an animal charity.
Finally…..be kind to yourself
Give yourself time to work through your emotions. The loss of a pet is painful, your loss IS real; it may bring back a whole host of memories so trying to rush the healing process may actually make you feel worse.
From the research it is evident that companion animal ownership may have both positive and negative impacts on our health. So do the benefits outweigh the costs? That may well be a matter of opinion but for me the answer is a definite yes! Undoubtedly the loss of a pet is an extremely painful time, there may be days when we can’t see the light but with the right help and support it will come. And with that light we will remember our pets with the joy they brought us. The never ending, unconditional love and affection they gave us. The lessons they taught us of how to live for the day and find joy in the simplest of things. To forgive quickly and not hold grudges. Their lives may be short, but their paw prints will be forever embedded in our hearts.
Hi, my name is Suzanne. I am an animal lover and Mum to the gorgeous Archie, a 7 year old golden Labrador. I’m currently studying a Master’s in Human-Animal Interaction at Stirling University. Although research into the effects of pet bereavement has increased in recent years, there is currently no research on the impact of pet bereavement in a workplace setting.
As part of my dissertation I’m carrying out research on people’s perceptions of pet bereavement in comparison to other forms of loss, with a focus on the impact in the workplace.
I’m therefore looking for people to participate in a short, anonymous survey. The survey will take around 7 minutes for non-pet owners and up to 15 minutes for pet owners. Your participation would be a huge help and greatly appreciated. If you would like to take part, please click the link below (deadline 5th May 2020). Thank You!