Do you remember a pet from your childhood? Do you remember how that animal made you feel? Do you remember saying good-bye? Our pets are great teachers. They teach us that we are worthy of being loved and capable of loving. They teach us about friendship. They heal our deepest insecurities and remind us that we are not alone. They heal our wounds, and then they move on, leaving an imprint that lasts forever.
A recent survey by the American Humane Association reveals evidence of the extraordinary therapeutic benefits of pets, particularly between children and the animals they grew up with. The respondents provided comments about beloved pets from their youth, and the comments illustrate that children share an irreplaceable bond with their pets which has a lasting impact. The bond is so strong, in fact, that many people will grieve their childhood pets for the rest of their lives.
The relationship between humans and animals is a fascinating exploration into the emotional capabilities of mankind. A beautiful element of human nature exists, allowing us to feel deep love and empathy for a creature outside our own species. In fact, some people (particularly those who have experienced severe or repeated trauma) say that they feel more empathy for an animal than they do for other human beings. What is it about our pets that allows us to love so deeply?
We love them because they fulfill our most basic and primal needs–the need to belong, the need for touch, the need for compassion, the need to be seen, the need to be loved. Animals see us in our rawest forms, and they love all parts of us–the good, the kind, the angry, and the ugly. In a world of constant judgment and high expectations, animals expect nothing more from us than to be whoever we feel like being in that moment.
Our relationship with our pets is very symbiotic. When we take care of them, they will give back in a multitude of ways. A growing body of scientific research shows that pet ownership results in a number of proven health and therapeutic benefits (physical, mental, and emotional), running the gamut from enhanced social skills to a decreased risk of heart attack.
Benefiting from each other’s existence, we explore the world with our pets, and suddenly we feel less alone. They come into our lives for a brief period, and we are constantly aware of that brevity. We know their lives are fragile and shorter than our own. We know that we will likely lose them one day, and that makes our time together even more special. As they age, we become more gentle, more understanding. When they do something silly, we belly laugh, just watching them exist in the same world, yet through the lens of a species so different from our own. We are fascinated by their differences, their beauty, their agility, and their ability to love unconditionally. We trust them with our children, and they teach our children in a way that creates a lifelong impact.
A few words from the respondents of the survey:
“…To me, losing a pet is no different than losing a relative or friend. They become a part of your family, and although they can’t communicate in forms of human language, the love and the bond that is created cannot be denied. I’ve had to deal with the loss of two pets in my life and just like the death of a loved one, I grieved and still think about the time we had [together] often….”
“…Domino wasn’t just a pet, he was my best friend and every time I was sick, he stayed with me…if I had a[epileptic] seizure he stayed with me and then followed me around the house to be sure I was safe. He meant the world to me and nobody could ever replace him or what he meant to me. He was my rock for 18 years and I was his and I will never forget him.”
“… I was a lonely little girl, living with my father as my parents fought over my custody. This little dog was ALL I had….. She was taken away from me, I never was told where to and I’ve never forgotten her… it was traumatic.”
” … I remember the details very clearly of his sudden illness, going to the vet, him being euthanized, and bringing him home to be buried…. I’ve always been thankful to my parents that the situation was handled with grace and dignity for our beloved Barney…”