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  • Writer's pictureDr. Karin

A Bond Like No Other

The human-animal-bond is, at it's essence, the strong relationship we share with pets in our lives. It is often mutual, and there are deep emotional, physical, social and psychological reasons for its existence. The release of oxytocin during animal interactions can decrease ones heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones.

Can you feel the oxytocin release just from the pictures?! If you're saying, "Awwwww," that's it!

In The Biology of the Human–Animal Bond by Alan M. Beck (published in Animal Frontiers, July 2014, Vol. 4, No. 3) he notes:

"Many of the behaviors and emotions experienced when people are together are also experienced by people when they are with companion animals such as talking, feeling less lonely, finding comfort with touch, the joy of caring and nurturing, being stimulated to exercise, finding reasons to laugh, and serving as a focus of attention; all of these lessen feelings of stress."

No wonder we feel so connected to these beautiful creatures.

This modern-day bond though, that provides happiness, positivity and relaxation, is also what makes the loss of a beloved pet so hard. I often have clients ask why the loss of their pet hurts more than the loss of a family member. This is often followed by a comment about feeling guilt for that emotion. First, most pets are considered family members. They are family members where the pet lives in the home, may sleep in your bed, and is there when you walk in from a long day at work. Maybe they are with you at work! Unlike kids that grow up and hopefully move out of the house to become their own independent selves, companion animals are always there. Pets must be fed, sheltered, provided exercise, and loved, from weaning until their passing. They grow old but don't grow up and move on. For me, this quote from Outside Magazine, authored by Annette McGivney, describes clearly that which I was never able to put into words, and it is now my answer to the question above:

“Our pets are there for us when other humans may not be,” says Robert Neimeyer, the author of several books on grief and director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition. “Pets provide what psychologists call a ‘secure base’ for us where we can feel unconditionally loved and trusted. We often have the sense that they understand our emotions intuitively in ways that others do not cognitively.” Neimeyer points out that the emotional bond with a pet can be especially strong for people like me who are survivors of trauma. And he says one of the great ironies of pet loss is that we’re grieving the absence of the very companion who could have made such a significant loss more bearable.

The link to this personal and touching article is here and is the author's own experience with the loss of her dog:

With my dogs and cat, I experience different emotions and needs in my interactions with each of them. One dog is playful and obsessed with balls, he makes me laugh when he cocks his head and has his lip caught under his canine tooth. My other dog loves to snuggle and literally scratches my legs apart so he can curl up and nestle between them when on the couch, As for my cat, she is mostly attached to my daughter but my major interaction with her is when she scratches furiously on the door to enter the bathroom to ensure I haven't exited via some hidden tunnel. With this love and connection, I also know there will be loss and sadness someday. I accept that because I know that I am making a positive difference in their lives, just as they make a positive difference in mine. The grief will be softened by knowing I experienced their love and companionship, I established a lifetime of memories, and in knowing I am a better person because of our paths crossing. I can only say this because of previous losses, both pets and humans that were dear to my heart. I remain grateful for the opportunity to love and be loved.

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