For those who live alone, a pet from a shelter may just be the perfect companion. “Dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, gerbils, birds, fish, and even reptiles can provide remarkable physical and psychological health benefits to humans,” states Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo in Ohio and author of “Jack Hanna’s Ultimate Guide to Pets.”
“All pets reduce isolation and provide an object to receive love and care. As pets depend on their owner for basic survival needs, they provide the owner with an increased sense of purpose,” says Julie Russell, MSW, LCSW-C, a psychological health professional in Washington, D.C.
I know from personal experience that a pet can even help in the grieving process after a major loss. When our daughter Elizabeth died at the age of 16, not only were my husband and I grieving, but Elizabeth’s dog, Riley, grieved as well. He had spent the last five years of Elizabeth’s life keeping her company on the couch. Elizabeth was quadriplegic and often ill, and since Riley didn’t enjoy playing, they were very content resting companions. He was very gentle with Elizabeth and kept her cold feet warm by lying on them.
When Elizabeth died, it seemed as if Riley felt his purpose was gone. He no longer greeted us at the door nor would he lie on the couch to keep us company. He kept to himself in a corner of the house. Even so, having Riley around felt like we still had a part of our daughter with us.
When he became terminally ill with cancer a year after Elizabeth died, Jim and I sat with him at the vet’s office while Riley was put to sleep. We were inconsolable—it was as if Elizabeth died all over again. Our daily connection to her was gone. Jim stayed home from work that day and we went to bed in the early afternoon, too grief stricken to face the rest of the day.
Within a few hours of putting Riley down, our daughter Jackie, who was away at college, found us a new pet. “Mom, it’s not that I don’t miss Riley, but I just found a dog who needs a home.” He was a beagle/basset hound mix and had to live in a crate in his owner’s kitchen because he wouldn’t stop chasing her four cats.
Neither one of us wanted another dog. But did we really want Jackie to visit our home with both her sister and dog gone? We did not want our house to be viewed as a sad place. So, two days after Riley died, Jim and I drove to upstate New York to meet this hound. His owner said, “I feel so bad trying to find another home for him, but I just can’t control him around my cats. I whispered to Jim, “He does make me laugh—we could use some of that.” I was captured by his face. His eyes were somewhat saggy and sad, making me feel he understood my inner grief. We took him home that day.
To be honest, however, I didn’t love Bailey at first—I kept comparing him to Riley who had been quiet, intelligent and obedient. Unlike Riley, Bailey was no couch potato. He was like having a noisy toddler underfoot. He pestered us to play in the evening when we just wanted to relax with the television. He barked and barked until we got off the couch and chased him around the house, pretending we were monsters after his squeaky toy. Other times, Bailey wanted us to kick a ball back and forth with him.
Our floors were strewn with toys we tripped over, and when we weren’t home, he had accidents. He never listened when I asked him to sit or stay. When I asked the vet in a whisper at his first appointment if she thought he was kind of dumb, she replied, “No, he’s just part basset hound and they do what they want, assuming you’ll forgive them later.”
A turning point in my feelings toward Bailey came one evening after asking Jim to take me home early from a party that reminded me too much of Elizabeth’s passing—it was filled with people who had been very kind to our severely disabled little girl. Upon returning to our house, I wanted to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head. But Bailey would have none of that—he barked at us until we gave in and clicked on his leash for a walk. As Jim and I discussed what a pain in the neck Bailey was, I thought of how he did at least distract us somewhat from our sorrow. Yes, Bailey was good for us. Bailey demanded our attention and didn’t care if we were too depressed to talk to him. He didn’t want talking anyway, he just wanted to be chased or walked. No matter what mood we were in, we were capable of doing that.
Bailey was stylish, sporting cheerful bandanas. His woebegone expression and confusing breed mix caused the tourists in our town of Mystic, CT, to stop and ask what kind of dog he was. They asked if their children could pet Bailey and have their picture taken with him. It gave us great joy to watch little ones delight in Bailey’s sloppy kisses and enthusiastic tail wagging. We had children back in our lives again—even if only for a moment.
On pets and grieving, Russell says, “The relationship with a pet is unique. While a pet will not replace the loss of a loved one, it provides a reason for continuing to get out of bed and move forward in life. A pet is dependent on its owner and in turn generally thankful and not judgmental. This makes a pet a good individual to talk to.”
Hanna suggests in his book that learning the pros and cons of the kind of animal you wish to consider will help you determine “how much pleasure/comfort/company a pet will give you versus how much work/space/time it will take for you to enjoy it.” You can learn about the realities of pet care through books, animal shelters, vets, pet store owners, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). For those not ready to take on a pet, Russell suggests volunteering in animal shelters.
I wish I had consulted my local animal shelter first before inviting a long list of unsuitable pets into our home. We tried a hamster, but it bored Jackie and my fear of rodents made cleaning the cage challenging. A kitten scratched Elizabeth’s face. A rabbit did nothing but stink up its cage.
I found Hanna’s book on pets very enlightening as it outlined the personality traits and requirements of standard pets such as cats, dogs, and birds, along with the not-so-standard pets like rats, pot-bellied pigs and even cockroaches. For example, I was surprised by Hanna’s statement, “A bird can be as much of a buddy as a dog, as playful and cuddly as a kitten—and as obnoxious as a toddler with a tantrum.”
I know a lot of people who love the ease of caring for a cat, and they take pleasure in watching their goofy antics. My friend Cindy Modzelewski of Virginia faced loneliness when she moved away from her home in Connecticut. It was her kitty who gave her a reason to smile: “Misty has the softest, fluffiest fur and is a good company keeper—she even likes to sit in the bathroom sink when I’m brushing my teeth! She loves to rub noses, especially when I’m trying to put in my contact lenses.”
Regarding reptiles, however, I found it hard to believe anyone could have feelings toward them until I asked a teenager who owned both a snake and a lizard. He replied, “Yes, I love them. They are very cute and you become very attached to them.”
Snakes and lizards cute?
Maybe there really is a pet for everyone!
To decide if pet adoption is right for you, start with the ASPCA’s webpage on the questions you should ask yourself. Click on: http://www.aspca.org/adopt/adoption-tips/questions-ask-yourself-adopting.
End Note: Lisa Saunders tells the story of Elizabeth’s dog companion in her memoir, “Anything But a Dog! The perfect pet for a girl with congenital CMV.” Stories about her beagle/basset hound are told in her travel memoir, “Mystic Seafarer’s Trail.”
Hanna, Jack with Minds, Hester. (1996). Jack Hanna's Ultimate Guide to Pets. New York, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.