By: Osman N. Sanyer, MD
We had to put our eleven-year-old family dog to rest this week. Bella, who was apparently well and healthy two weeks prior, had stopped eating and became obviously ill a few days ago. When tests revealed that she was riddled with cancer, the choice to reduce her suffering, while painful, was not hard to make. Last winter we had to help our sixteen-year-old cat move on from the pain of a chronic untreatable illness. Given their ages, neither the illnesses or deaths were unexpected, but both left all of us profoundly saddened. I’m sure this response is no great surprise to those who choose to share their homes with pets. But the residual sense of emotional loss has given me pause to wonder about what we can learn from the lives, and deaths, of our animals.
From the scientific standpoint, there is fairly extensive literature documenting the benefits of pet ownership. The data shows that when we welcome pets into our lives, we lower blood pressure and cholesterol, increase our physical activity, spend more time outside, form more social connections, and experience decreased loneliness and isolation. If we consider the leading causes of morbidity, mortality, and emotional distress, this research suggests that pet ownership could be considered a fairly cost-effective primary prevention for several of the leading determinants of health: cardiovascular disease linked to obesity and inactivity, and depression linked to social isolation and inadequate time in nature. The downsides to pet ownership are fairly limited: possible stress related to work or travel schedules, potential allergy issues, the costs of food and veterinary care, and a few relatively rare (and preventable) infections. In fact, the biggest negative impact on human health by having a pet may be the grief reactions we experience when a pet dies.
A more intangible question relates to an understanding of why we experience such grief at the loss of a pet (despite our intellectual understanding of normal pet lifespans), and what we can learn about our own lives from our pets. I think it can be distilled down to two fairly simple concepts:
- Over time, pets create memories of connection with others, both family and friends. Our animal companions appear as threads of continuity over time in our memories, photos, stories, and maturation (or aging). While we often talk about animal age in “dog years” or “cat years,” we also mark epochs of our own lives in the span of time a pet was with us. In our household, our cat was a 6th birthday present for my daughter and lived with us until the winter after her college graduation. Bella arrived on Christmas day when my kids were 12 and 14. She was present through their teen years and always eager to welcome them on return trips home during college and beyond. I realize that, for me, the passing of the two pets marks, with a jolt, the passage of time, not only in the lives of my now adult children but in my own. Their mortality serves as a reminder of my own. I find myself contemplating a home without a pet for the first time in nearly thirty years. And I wonder, “How many “pet lives” remain in my own?”
- Our pets may be the closest thing we ever get to a “perfect” friend or companion. They listen without judgment, are usually happy to see us (my personal bias is that this is harder to recognize in cats), remain loyal despite our own failures in friendship, and create opportunities for us to engage other people more easily. When we lose a pet, we lose our idealized version of a “best friend.”
The data and observations I’ve shared above may offer us some lessons we can take forward from our own lives, independent of whether we share them with pets. The more tangible and concrete include the commitment to go outside and move when we have the chance, it’s good for our health. Greet people we care about with joy, acknowledge that their presence brings meaning to our lives, and allow others to have the gift of our own presence without attached judgment.
A more challenging question is to ask how we can best keep our own mortality in mind. Is there a way to more consistently take stock of what has been, and what is coming? It may be healthy for us to ask ourselves, with some regularity, “How many pet lives do I have left?” and, given that the answer is finite, “What do I want to do be doing with my time… right now?”
Osman N. Sanyer, MD, is a Professor (clinical) in the Division of Family Medicine in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah.