When meeting a family for the first time, it is helpful to map out the relationships of all members – including pets. The process of choosing a pet (designer dog or rescue cat for instance), who is closest to them and who looks after them provides a window into the meaning that a pet may have for the family.
Research suggests added health benefits, opportunity for attachment relationships, and building community networks around pet ownership. The attachment relationship to a pet is very real and can be just as rich as with other family members and friends.
Someone I know told me about his ‘experiment’ in choosing and buying a cat, and later introducing her to his reluctant parents as a way to create a bond and conversation across age, cultural and language barriers. It was an unexpected success in connection and family relationship building!
Pets also provide a deep contribution of life continuity when an individual or family relocate.
Other stories have highlighted the stress of the expensive cost of veterinary care when their animals become seriously ill or require surgery for life limiting conditions, as well as guilt about not being able to spend time playing with their pet or exercising them.
Many moving stories of loss and grief in losing a pet (by human cruelty, by accident, in going missing and not being returned, through old age or illness) shared with me recently have been very profound and analogous to loss, grief and sometimes trauma in human relationships.
My encouragement is for us to consider each pet as a gift to human community and to provide a space for deep conversation to appreciate their past and present significance in our lives and relationships.