Appreciating the Real Value of Our Pets:
      How We Can Care For Our Aging Animal Companions    

Not since Lassie and My Friend Flicka graced television airwaves has America been more in love with its pets. There are now more pets than people in the country according to a survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

Here in the United States, over 290 million of us own nearly 378 million pets, and we spent over 32 billion dollars on them in 2003—an almost doubling of pet expenditures in the last 10 years. And that’s $12 billion more than we spent on toys for our children that same year. The message is clear, we seem to care more for our pets than ever before and show it by spending more and more for their care.

It’s no wonder; psychologists and pro-animal groups have been telling us for years that pets are good for much more than fetching Frisbees in the yard. Simply spending time with them can help humans reduce depression and anxiety and even revive the will to live in some.

Just think of the classic dog response when its master returns home from a 10 minute trip to the store. That “I love you and can’t get enough of you” tail-wagging and enthusiasm is hard to find in the human world. There is even AAT, or Animal Assisted Therapy, in which animals are used by health professionals to treat a variety of both physical and mental disorders.

There is also strong evidence that pet owners have less high blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels. Their resistance to disease is heightened and tension is decreased.

But with all the good that owning pets bring us, they also carry with them pain of loss that we might not otherwise experience. Pets die. And while that is nothing new, the growing attachment that we seem to have to our pets means a growing number of people suffer great emotional distress at the loss of pets.

A woman named Lori, for instance recently wrote on a website for pet-owners about her dog disappearing, “I have not been able to cope very well with his disappearance. I feel like part of my soul went with him wherever he went.”

And then there is the challenge of euthanasia. Unlike in the human world where it is mostly illegal and highly debated, putting pets “to sleep” is an accepted practice. But it still brings great pain to those involved. After euthanizing her dog, a grief-stricken owner recently wrote, “I know we did what was best for him by ending his suffering, yet I feel so guilty for having helped in the decision to end a life… heart is broken.”

But it is just this kind of deep attachment, and yes, pain, that makes having a pet such a rewarding experience, says Diane Pomerance, a Ph.D. in communications who is also a grief recovery specialist. “In today’s complex, impersonal, industrialized and technologically-oriented society,” she says, “we learn not only from our elderly humans but also from our older animal companions, with whom we happily share both our lives and homes.”

Pomerance argues that pets teach us about life and ourselves, and that results in better understanding of ourselves and more sensitivity to caring for our pets.

Dr. Pomerance is the author of several books on animal issues. Most recently she authored Animal Elders: Caring About Our Aging Animal Companions in which she guides the reader to a greater appreciation for learning from and caring for pets. “It is important to value and appreciate all phases of life,” she says, “and to honor, respect, and care for our animal and human elders.”

But it is a two-way street, she believes. From the attachment to and care for our pets comes wisdom for our own lives. “From our animal companions,” she says, “we can learn much about the process of growing old with its accompanying rewards and limitations.”

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