My beloved dachshund, Charlie Brown, is gently snoring under my desk as I write this. Twenty-four hours ago there was real fear that he would not be with me this morning. He had oral surgery yesterday. Under relatively normal circumstances, getting some teeth extracted would not be a big deal. However, Charlie Brown is 17-years-old. At his age, being put under anesthesia is significantly more risky than it would were he a younger pup of seven. Night before last, not knowing if the evening would be my last with him, I treated him to a cheeseburger dinner, extra snuggles, and tearful messages of love whispered into his deaf, floppy, half-bald ears.
In case you can't tell, I love my dog.
I realize that some of you are rolling your eyes right about now. I am also aware that other readers can relate exactly to my fear of losing this little creature who is my best friend, child, and partner in crime all rolled up into one vertically-challenged pooch with a Napoleon complex. For some of us, animal companions are more than furry foot warmers who make us laugh with their goofy antics. They are fully integrated members of the family who share our greatest joys, most embarassing moments, and saddest heartbreaks. Whether they belong to your dog, cat, goat, bird, ferret, or hedgehog, those seemingly warm and soulful eyes communicate a love and devotion that feel unparalleled in our relationships with some humans.
I'm kidding, right?
I kid you not. Last year, science journal Behavioral Processes published the results of a study out of Emory University in Atlanta by Berns, Brooks, and Spivak (2015) that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure dogs' emotional responses different smells. Each dog was exposed to samples of different scents that included samples from their human families, other family dogs, human strangers, and dog strangers. The part of the brain often associated with love, the caudate nucleus, activated most strongly when the dogs sniffed out the scent of their humans above the other scents. The conclusion straight out the mouths of the researchers: "Dogs are people, too."
Still skeptical? Researchers out of Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest (Andics, Gácsi, Faragó, Kis, and Miklósi, 2014) also used fMRI to study the activity of dog brains responding to human voice tones. According to lead researcher Antilla Andics, in addition to sharing a similar social environment, "dogs and humans have similar brain mechanisms to process social information." In other words, dogs respond to emotionally-laden vocal cues much in the same way that humans do.
So what point am I trying to make? Our animals deserve a lot more credit than they are given. Scientifically-backed research supporting the physical and mental/emotional health benefits of animal companionship for humans has been around for decades. Many of us are familiar with reports that connect pet ownership to better cardiovascular health, reduction of allergy symptoms for children, decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety, and even better social health.
Despite all the evidence pointing to the significance of pets, people who have close relationships with their animal companions sometimes find themselves the brunt of light-hearted but invalidating jokes that undermine the power of the animal-human bond. As a matter of fact, a growing body of research shows that disenfranchised grief, which is grief that is minimized or considered socially unacceptable by others, is a very real trauma experienced by pet owners struggling with the death or illness of their animal companions.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you are struggling with your pet's illness or the loss of an animal companion:
* Honor your process. Anxiety, fear, sadness, anger, guilt . . . these are all natural responses. No one gets to tell you how you should feel about a situation that is so close to your heart. It is also important that you avoid judging yourself negatively for feeling the way you do for however long it takes.
* Connect with people who will honor your process. Accept the support of loved ones who empathize with your experience. Also consider reaching outside of your regular social circle to connect with a pet-focused support group or a therapist that understands the animal-human bond. Your veterinarian may have some excellent referrals. You don't need to go it alone.
* Try not to waste precious time and effort trying to justify yourself to people who don't understand your relationship with your pet(s). It will just make you feel worse. Some people just aren't going to understand what you're going through because they've never had a pet or simply for the fact that they have different values when it comes to animals. This does not make them bad people; they're just different from you.
* Love your pet. Don't be ashamed to shower them with affection. Rock that pet stroller if it means your arthritic animal will enjoy being outdoors with you. Yes, I AM that pet mom and damned proud of it. If you are suffering a loss, put together a memory box containing things like your loved one's collar and favorite toy. Consider celebrating the life if your pet with a service attended by people who love you and loved your furry/feathery/scaly baby.
* For more ideas on how to cope with pet loss, please refer to this excellent article posted on helpguide.org. Also, endless thanks to the wonderful staff of Maple Leaf Veterinary Care Center of Seattle, WA for their loving care of my boy who is now happily snarfing up homemade porridge.
Your fellow human and proud doggy momma,