Some may say that pets are just domesticated animals and that is all they are. Uh, no … read on. 

 

Before I had a long-term partner, I used to say: 

“Partners may come and go  

But, my pet is always there for me.” 

What is it about pets that create in us so much love, hope and delight, even though we know that they will also bring us much grief when they pass on? 

Pets are creatures that we get so attached to, animals whom we love so purely, family members for whom we grieve so astoundingly with our saddest of sobs and tears. These lovely beings greet us as soon as we awake in the morning, they sometimes sleep with us at night, and they are present with us whenever and wherever we allow it. How do pets, who may be just animals, make our lives more full and fabulous? 

As soon as we enter a room, we see and feel their presences, we hear their howls of joy or meows of curiosity. We sense their smiles toward us even though we sometimes wonder if they really love us, or if they just want a tiny bit more to eat. Pets often seem happy or at least comfortable being around us no matter our moods, and they keep us from feeling lonely and sad. Pets are paradoxical parts of our lives without which we might be lost. Just animals? No. 

As I think back throughout my life, I am not sure I have had one pet-less year, except perhaps when I was in college but my parents still had Jill, the tiny beagle who grew up with me and stayed with my parents when I left them. I myself have owned not only cats and dogs but ducks, birds, fish (indoors and outdoors), gerbils, and a ferret, a dear, sweet soul who danced ecstatically but who also stank. 

Although I have experienced only a few tragic deaths of extended family members and friends, I once grieved so loudly and forcefully for one of my dogs, a chocolate lab named Choc, that this level of grief stunned even me. I rescued him from the humane shelter and within 3 weeks, it became clear that he had a terminal disease. I cried and wept more for him than for most other pets and people combined, and I wondered why? Loss is loss and we can feel abandoned, rejected, helpless, or betrayed, triggering all sorts of feelings from past traumas. 

My gray cat, Cheddar, lived with me for 17-1/2 years of my young adulthood. I imagined that he “decided” to die after I got pregnant for the first time. I believed that he didn’t want a sibling and chose to leave before such a thing happened. But, he was probably just sick. I had to make meaning out of that loss somehow so my brain made up a story about it, as brains often do. 

Pets Are People Too?

We sometimes anthropomorphize our pets, meaning that we assume or project onto them many of our own human feelings and thoughts. When our carnivorous cat doesn’t eat, we may think he has a tummy ache. We may rush our dog to the vet when she seems listless (because something must be wrong, right?) although she is just tired from our long walk. We are frequently anxious about our pets. 

We assume our pets love us, are so happy with us, or are sad along with us. We project anger and fear onto our pets unconsciously and involuntarily with these crackerjack brains of ours that make snap judgments as we try to explain and understand the world around us. 

If the dog is barking, we decide whether he is either excited, scared, mad or lonely just like we project sometimes onto babies what their cries tell us about they want and need. Or, what we want and need. 

Our pets also take care of us (or we think they do) if we are sad, distressed or lonely. I have heard so many stories about pets who sit with their sick owners, refusing to leavtheir sides, even when they die. Or, how pets may “diagnose” cancer in their owners before a doctor does. 

Why have people put pets in pyramids and tombs with their dead bodies? Are they hoping their pets will be with them in a next life? Why all this attachment to pets? Maybe because we are closely and primitively attached to them in some visceral, emotional and perhaps spiritual ways, and we feel a strong bond, maybe making up for the looser and more complex attachments we have or have had with the humans in our lives. 

Grieving Pets

But along with joy comes grief when our pets die. Pets touch us so deeply and grief from the loss of a pet feel less complicated than when we grieve people. We seem to mourn pets’ deaths more genuinely or more authentically than we do human deaths. Even though our human relationships can be loving and intimate, human relationships are multi-faceted, complicated and dynamic, full of conflict and/or comfort (and everything in between), especially with family members. We experience a full range of emotions with humans whereas with pets, we may feel more consistent love and sometimes need. 

Truth be told, we may experience our pets, the care taking of our pets, and the being with our pets as so integral to our daily lives, full of routines like when we walk the dog and when we feed the cat, that an alteration in these rituals undoes us for awhile. Without our pets, we may feel lost, the day is without form or structure, or at the very least, our routines change dramatically and this takes a toll on us. We are sometimes brought to our knees when a pet dies partly because it impacts so many parts of our everyday lives. 

A friend told me recently that when his cat died, he posted the news on Facebook and received over 140 comments, which he treasured. He also got lots of calls, texts and emails from family and friends. They sent him gifts commemorating his pet’s transition from this physical life to whatever comes next. And although he felt wonderfully supported by this outburst of attention, he also cried each night and morning, the times he most missed his adorable pet of 14 years. He also somehow knows that he needs to grieve this pet for awhile before he fills up his life with a new one. And, this next one may create a new adventure of love and attachment bringing him both joy and grief again one day. 

Barbara Sanders headshotFinally, as much as we realize that pets’ lives are briefer than our own, we keep choosing these little love buddies to join us as we walk through our lives, knowing that we need them perhaps more than they need us. 

Barbara Sanders, LCSW, is a licensed Nashville psychotherapist. She may be reached at  DignityTherapyNashville.com, or [email protected], 615.414.2553.

Cover photo: by Eddie Galaxy from Pexels