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Pets as Objects of Affection
Just one week ago I lost my beloved St. Bernard, Rascal. He was only ten weeks old when I got him-as a surprise for my sixteenth birthday. For nine years he was a part of my life. Now it's very painful to come into the house and not find him here. His presence is everywhere. I don't believe I will ever get over the ache the loss has left in my heart.
Anyone who ever loved a pet can understand the feelings of loss that follow the death of an animal companion.
When Rascal died, his young owner lost a friend. He had padded after her as a puppy and continued to be a part of her day-to-day life for years. They had their routines, responded to each other's moods. Now, when her key turns in the lock, instead of getting an excited greeting, Susan is met with silence. No wonder she is having difficulty dealing with the empty spaces left by Rascal's death.
The distress Susan feels is not at all uncommon-millions of people, of every age and background, have experienced or will undergo the stress of pet loss. To many owners, pets are like members of the family, with personalities of their own. Common sense tells us that because of the differences in relative life-spans in all likelihood we will lose our pets. Yet the loss of a lovingly raised cat or dog can take a slice out of one's life.
What makes it especially difficult is that often, despite their sense of attachment, people are disturbed by their feelings. Surely, they tell themselves, such strong grief is appropriate only for the loss of a human friend.
But in fact, grief is not a feeling that is reservedfor the loss of friends or relatives. Grief is a normal reaction whenever we undergo an important loss of any kind, and the depth of the grief depends on the attachment we have to what is lost.
Psychologists explain attachment as a tie of affection to any significant object-even an inanimate one-that fills a particular need. A shredded baby blanket, for example, will help a toddler bridge the gap between infancy and the more demanding world of childhood. Removing it will cause the baby to respond with distress. And the teenage boy who lavishes care on his first car-the symbol of his coming of agewill suffer when it is damaged.
John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist who has studied attachments, found that any unwilling separation or loss of objects of attachment "gives rise to many forms of emotional distress and personality disturbance."
He found that symptoms of such distress include anger, loneliness and emptiness-and these are, not surprisingly, the very feelings that pet owners experience when their animals are suddenly gone.
Identifying Your Pet's Meaning to You
As with human losses, the first step in dealing with painful pet loss is to examine your attachments: what did your pet mean to you? It is important to identify these bonds for two reasons. Examining the connections that held you to your pet will help you accept the intensity of your reaction to the loss. And understanding what the attachments were based on will let you begin to seek other ways to satisfy the needs once met by your pet.
The attachments felt between pet owners and animals, of course, vary widely. Those who own animals for purely practical reasons-such as the restaurant owner who buys a cat to rid his place of rats and mice-are likely to accept the pet's
death without great sorrow. Their animals filled important needs, but the emotional bonds may not have been particularly strong. At the other extreme are a small number of people who, perhaps because of the inability to form healthy relationships with other humans, have unreasonable attachments to their pets. These people frequently see their pets as extensions of themselves, and project their own attitudes and feelings onto the animal. Their pet's death may represent their own demise, or it may signal the end of their most meaningful relationship, and the grief reactions can be extreme and require professional help.
For many people, however, the pet attachment is strong without being overwhelming. The ties are often varied; some are more important than others. Among the things that pets provide are uncritical love, companionship, pride and selfesteem; also, they serve as substitute relatives, protectors, social assets, promoters of physical exercise, and reminders of other people, places or times. And the relationships change as we move through life: children rely on pets for unqualified acceptance, childless couples enjoy lavishing care and training on a pet, people who live alone love their pets for mutual companionship, and elderly persons may appreciate being needed in an otherwise "empty nest."
In the following pages, these differing types of attachments are described. More than one may apply to the relationship between owners and their pets, but understanding the reasons for the attachments, as varied and complex as they may be, is the first step in accepting and overcoming the grief that follows when the bond is severed.
Love with No Strings Attached
Probably the most meaningful quality that pets provide us with is unqualified love and acceptance. So often, human affection must be gained with a great deal of effort and sacrifice, but pets give us a readily available, seemingly endless supply of love, and ask virtually nothing in return. If we leave our pets out in the rain, forget to feed them, or unfairly direct our anger at them, they forgive us. We do not have to impress our animal companions with our charm, intelligence or other agreeable qualities to earn their devotion. Their affection is extended without guile: there is no mistaking a thumping tail or a friendly rub; it signals "I'm glad to see you and I won't pretend I'm not."
Because they give us the love we crave, it is easy to understand our attachment. Sometimes, in fact, we may feel as though we love our cats or dogs too much, but if a pet provides a large measure of comfort, without lessening our relations with other human beings, there is nothing wrong with a strong tie.
A Constant Companion
It is hard to think of pets without immediately thinking of companionship. When we are lonely, we have an unfailing source to turn to. Exchanges of affection can take place in comfortable silence, giving us the opportunity for an easygoing relationship. Our pets will uncomplainingly keep us company in bed, alongside the bathtub, on a walk, in a truck, at the refrigerator at midnight or elsewhere, without requiring sparkling conversation to hold them there. By their very natures, pets are responsive to human moods and assuage our loneliness, respond to our playfulness, match our bursts of energy in perfect rhythm.
This type of attachment is often entwined with long-established routines and habits, which serve as sad reminders when the pet is no longer there to share them. We pause at the front door, waiting for the excited greeting; we glance at the window sill, recalling our cat's furry Buddha-like profile. It ishard on us when we lose these companions. We respond naturally with feelings of loneliness and emptiness and often with a lack of concentration on matters that normally take our attention. In a sense, we are searching for our lost companion.
The Pride of Ownership
The pets that share our lives also reinforce our own selfimages. The free-spirited find joy in romping through the park with a footloose canine; children take special delight in the antics of puppies or kittens that mirror their own playful natures; disciplined people work with pride in training and showing their pets; the male with the macho image strides along with a dog as big as a horse; the woman with a strong maternal instinct finds it fulfilling to nurture her pet.
There is great satisfaction in overseeing the development of another living being, encouraging the traits you personally value. And the relationship between people and their new dependents often develops quickly. One moment the cat or dog is a stranger living with a breeder, at a pet store, or on the streets, and the next it has been adopted and swiftly accepted as the newest member of the family. Such instant bonding is understandable. Dogs and cats reach in and pull out our desire to care for another living being. For some people the first bonds are formed on the trip home with their pet; others become emotionally connected during the first walk or the first time the animal responds to training.