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People form strong, emotional bonds with their pets, similar to human-human attachments and in some cases, pets may be the only positive relationship someone has in their life. Pets, particularly dogs, are important family members and even play the role of best friend for some people, especially for children. Some children even say they prefer their pet over their siblings.
Increasing research has demonstrated that pets can be beneficial for people both mentally and emotionally. Many studies find pets increase happiness, well-being, facilitate social connections, increase physical activity and decrease stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness. This is often referred to as the the ‘pet effect’.
However, only in recent years has the negative impact of pet loss on mental health and well-being across the lifespan been investigated. Pet loss is an inevitable aspect of human-animal relationships, given the shorter lifespan of companion animals. If people hold strong emotional bonds to their pets, it comes as no surprise that losing this significant member of the family can be devastating. Consequently, this has the potential to have a negative impact on health and well-being as comes with most bereavements.
People can find themselves overwhelmed. Between scheduling vet appointments, staying at home to care for a pet with a terminal illness and needing time off following a pet’s death due to bereavement, can all adversely impact one’s personal and work life. This can be magnified when not met with compassion and understanding in workplaces where pet loss is not recognised as a bereavement.
Additionally, a person can be impacted by the emotional strain of caring for an ill pet, as well as making difficult decisions surround a pet’s welfare, followed by feelings of guilt around euthanasia.
Research has shown that the bereavement of a pet can be just as severe as bereavement for another human, experiencing the same symptomology as when grieving the death of a human, such as sadness, loss of sleep, difficulty concentrating and loss of appetite. Pet grief can last as long as a year and without support, can lead to posttraumatic stress, depression and anxiety.
When a person loses their pet, they may also lose part of their identity, their daily routine may change and they may no longer have access to the same social networks as they once had.
Pet loss may be more profound for some, such as those with stronger human-pet attachments, those living alone, and the elderly. Studies have shown that pets may be the only reason some people get up in the morning. This may be the only social interaction they have had that day and so pet loss can be severely distressing.
For children, this may be the first time they have experienced loss and grief to another whom they are strongly attached to. Research has shown that children may report clinical levels of grief over their pet, especially when the child is younger and their pet attachment is at its strongest.
Children, therefore, also need adequate support to ensure their mental well-being and positive coping during the pet bereavement process. Following a pet’s death, people continue to feel bonded or connected to their pet. Therefore, providing a safe, supportive and compassionate space for people to talk about their pets can aid in the grieving process.
Despite the increasing awareness of the negative impacts of pet loss, pet bereavement is often disenfranchised in modern society. When the topic of taking compassionate leave for pet bereavement comes up among work colleagues it is often mocked. Perhaps the issue stems from questions relating to types of pets. Do people only grieve for dogs and cats? Or do people mourn their hamsters and fish as well? Who decides whether a person was bonded ‘enough’ to their pet to be able to have a day off from work to mourn their loss?
Only until pet loss and bereavement is taken more seriously and more research has been done to understand bereavement and attachment to different pet types, can healthcare professionals and workplaces offer appropriate support and advice to those who need it.
Recognising pet bereavement as equal to bereaving a human is something New Leaf Animal Society feel strongly about. They are working to promote awareness of the strong emotional bonds people can have with their pets, and through research and education, advocate for pet bereavement to be recognised within society but more specifically work environments.
If you would be interested in helping us with this or getting involved email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Roxanne Hawkins is a lecturer in psychology at the University of West Scotland, and founder of Science of Pets and serves as Research and Education Trustee at New Leaf Animal Society.
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