Sunday, June 11, 2017

Pets: Companionship and Comfort When Life Gets Tough

Most people I know have a pet. And it’s not hard to understand why, throughout history, humans have had animal companions. What’s not to like about a pet? I can understand why a person might decide not have one. Pets can be expensive. And if you work or travel a lot, maybe you don’t feel you can take care of a pet. But it’s hard for me to imagine simply not wanting to have a fur baby.

Growing up, we always had a dog in the house. My mom is a big fan of dogs and she's allergic to cats, so we always had a dog—usually a Standard Poodle. I have so many memories growing up with our faithful dog, Dopple, keeping me company on my bed. I remember feeling comforted if I was home alone, knowing he'd bark to protect me if I needed him. Being an animal lover, I often had other pets too—fish or hamsters, sometimes a bird. So there was always at least one animal in the house.

As an adult, when my husband and I lived in apartments, we had cats. And while cats are very different from dogs, they still provide comfort and affection. And cats are much easier to take care of than dogs. There is something unique about a relationship to animals you know are depending on you to take care of them. I can’t imagine my family without our furry companions.

After our daughter was born and we moved into a house, we got a dog. I always wanted a dog and we also thought a dog would be a good friend for our daughter, who is an only child. Our cats were a little afraid of her since she liked to chase them, so they didn’t provide any comfort for her. And I, having grown up in a dog household, definitely didn’t want her growing up feeling nervous about dogs. 

So we decided to rescue a dog. We looked at rescue sites, and from the first moment our daughter set eyes on a picture of Pidu (the dog we eventually adopted), she was in love. Pidu became her best friend and loved her with unwavering loyalty. When her father and I would argue with her, Pidu was always on her side and would keep her company as she stormed into her room. When she was sad, he was (and still is) always there to give her a cuddle and sit quietly by her, ready to provide unconditional love.

Pidu is a love ball. He’s gentle in every way and always happy to see us. He’s a constant source of love and companionship for everyone in the house. He's the first face we see when we arrive home and he's the last face we see when we leave. That’s really the amazing thing about pets—how much love they give us.

Our cats, Jasmine and Demetrius, are equally as loving as Pidu but in the sort of standoff-ish way cats are. Whereas Pidu gives open and unquestioning love, the cats are quirky and seem to question everything. But, contrary to their reputation, cats are extremely affectionate. And like dogs, they can be goofy and entertaining. 

It's amazing how much personality animals have. If you aren't familiar with animals, it's easy to think about them as two-dimensional, more like stuffed animals. But for anyone who has had a pet, you know that they each have well-rounded personalities. Some dogs are clever, some are dumb. Some are goofy, with a sense of humor, and some are more thoughtful and quiet.

Pidu is as sweet as sweet can be, but he has his quirks. He doesn't like the wind. He won't go outside if it's raining, and if you fart in his presence he runs away. He's absolutely terrified of farting noises!

Cats also have distinct personalities. One of our cats is very particular. She's prissy and won't let you mess with her. She's a princess and wants to be treated as such, and is quick to bite or swipe at you if you annoy her. Our other cat is a goof ball. He's clumsy and brutish. He leaves dead animal prizes for us by our back door, and insists on cuddles when he's tired.

Aside from the fact pets are fun and lovable, one of the most important things they contribute to a family is that they take us, the humans, outside of ourselves. Our fur babies have the magical ability to take our minds off our daily worries in a way that being with other humans can’t. There’s something about their little furry faces that make everything else that bothers us disappear, even if it’s just for a few moments. 

Animals are also at peace with themselves in a way that most humans aren't. They truly live in the moment, appreciating what's in front of them. They don't dwell on the past or worry about the future. They are very present. And I think that is part of the reason that spending time cuddling a pet can be very calming and restorative. They help to bring us into the present moment.

More recently, as my struggles with depression and anxiety have increased, my attachment to my pets has increased. My dependence on them has become much more significant as I have lost my ability and desire to deal with many things outside the house. And having my pets around means that being at home is never lonely. They keep me company and remind me that I’m not alone. They also make me feel needed, and that's a powerful thing to be reminded of when life feels difficult.

Two of Mara's pets Jasmine and Pidu

I know that my mom has had a similar experience with dogs since she becoming chronically ill, particularly her current one, Scout. As her universe got smaller because she was no longer able to work or leave the house, having the companionship of a dog has become a vital part of her life.

How would you describe your relationship to dogs throughout your life?

There's a story that goes with my answer to this question. When I was ten years old, my dad was dying of leukemia. A therapist friend of my mother's told her to get me a dog to help me cope with the loss I was about to experience. So she got me a Beagle puppy and I named her Connie. We'd had other dogs before and I liked them, but they were never particularly special to me.

It was different with Connie, though. She became my comfort. She meant so much to me that it changed my relationship to dogs. In fact, when your dad and I were talking about getting married, I said: “Sounds like a great idea, but we always have to have a dog.” And, except for a few months here and there, we've always had one. So my relationship with dogs throughout my life is easy to describe: I love them and I always want one in the house. And it traces back to Connie.

How do you think getting sick changed the way you related to your pets?

We’ve had three dogs during the time I’ve been chronically ill. Winnie, a Standard Poodle, was toward the end of her life when I got sick, and being sick actually allowed us to prolong her life for many months because she needed someone at home all the time to care for her. So because I was sick and at home, I could do that. She was a sweetheart. 

Then we got Rusty, partly because Beagles are hounds and I wanted another hound dog. Unlike Beagles though, Rusty was a big dog—a Redbone. 

He was the first dog that your dad got really close to. He didn’t grow up with dogs the way I did. I think he bonded with Rusty partly because I was sick and so not always good company. But also, Rusty was smart and stubborn and pushy—so he needed training and your dad undertook that. As a result, they really bonded. I enjoyed Rusty, but I wouldn’t say we had a close bond. Physically, he was the most beautiful dog I've ever had and he howled like a blues singer. He was truly unique. But I tend to think of him as your dad’s dog.

Now we have Scout, who is supposedly a Lab, but doesn’t really look like one and is about half the size of the Labs I've known. As you know, I’m extremely close to her. In fact, I adore her. But I don’t attribute those feelings to my being sick. That's because I was sick through Rusty’s entire life span, but was never as close to him as I am to Scout. 

I could be wrong, but it feels like my special relationship to Scout is more about Scout’s personality than about my being chronically ill. For one thing, she's so good-natured and goofy that she cheers me up all the time. Mainly though, she’s the most affectionate dog I’ve ever had and she’s devoted to me. Look at the picture at the bottom of this post and you’ll see what I mean. 

For example, she loves it when people come over, but if I have to leave the front of the house to lie down, she follows me into the bedroom and keeps me company on the bed. So she’s a great companion for me. Right now, your dad is gone for two weeks so it’s me and Scout. Me and Scout.

Can you imagine being sick and housebound without a dog as part of your family?

No, I can’t imagine it. When it comes to having a dog, I am that ten-year old kid whose Beagle helped me cope with the loss of a parent I was really close to. I write a lot about “want/don’t-want mind” and how it can be such a source of dissatisfaction and unhappiness for us. But I have to admit that, when it comes to Scout, I have a "want mind." I want her around always. It’s only when I consciously reflect on the realities of life that I can let go of that wanting and just say to myself, “Enjoy her while we’re together.” 

I guess I was trying to get an answer as to whether or not you think it’s valuable for people who are chronically ill to have the companionship of a pet?

Actually, I wrote a piece for Psychology Today about whether pets and chronic illness are a good match. Here's the link to the article:

People who have pets tell me that their pets are a tremendous comfort to them and are also great companions. So, I'd definitely consider getting one if you're chronically ill. That said, a lot of people live in circumstances where they either can’t have a pet (maybe they're in an apartment building that doesn't allow them), or they can't afford one. One of the tragic things about being chronically ill is that, if you don’t have good health insurance, most of your money is used up taking care of your health. Dogs particularly need care, such as exercise. I hire someone to take Scout for walks and he's also helped to train her. I know how fortunate I am that I can afford to do that. 

But to answer your question, yes, I think pets can be wonderful for people who are chronically ill. It need not be a dog or even a cat. It could be a bird or a hamster!

Scout and Toni


  1. Was a great blog post. Love the pics- especially the one of Scout and Toni. With the help of a private trainer, I'm training a dog to be a service dog. Sometimes I think she's more use a comfort, then the tasks were working on.

    1. Wow, that's wonderful you're training a service dog. They seem like little miracles to me. So important to the people they bond with. I imagine they are immeasurably comforting, not to mention how practically helpful they are. xo-M