Angela separated from Tom, her husband of ten years, she hoped the situation would be temporary. She rented an
Then a colleague at work mentioned that her neighbor had kittens for sale. "I went to have a look, and I fell in love with two of them," she says. Three weeks later, the kittens were hers, and within days, her depression had started to lift. "Suddenly, there was someone to welcome me home at the end of a long day, someone to laugh with, someone to care for again...They were a great, drug-free solution to my depression -- kind of 'pet Prozac,' actually," she smiles.
Angela's story is far from unique. Numerous studies over the past 20 years have documented the positive power of pets on both our mental and physical health. A 1993 report in the Harvard Health Letter highlights some of these benefits: lower blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety levels. The report also points to the fact that companion animals have more consistent behavior than their human counterparts. In other words, they offer their owners a genuine sense of unconditional love.
Unlike well-meaning friends and family, who often choose sides and offer "helpful" unsolicited advice to individuals who are in the throes of separation and divorce, animals are non-judgmental. "If you have the best day you've ever had, your dog will be there for you 100%," says Eric Cline, Canadian director of the Grief Recovery Institute. "Conversely, if you've just had the worst day you've ever had, your pet will still be there. Better still -- they're intuitive. They seem to know immediately when you've had a rotten day."
While there have been no studies that specifically deal with the role of pets during
Simply put, pets provide an emotional anchor for individuals who have sailed into troubled waters. "They give people something to focus on other than themselves," explains Carolyn Clark, director of
That sense of stability was a real lifesaver for Angela. Today, she is reunited with her husband, and she, Tom, and the three cats live together under one roof. "We don't have children, so it's like our own version of a blended family," she laughs. Then turning more serious, she says: "I'll always be grateful to my two cats for helping to pull me through a very difficult time."
Channeling the power of pets
If animals have always been a part of your life, that continuity is probably going to be very helpful to you as you work through your situation, says Clark. "Everything else may be going to pieces, but animals provide a common thread, a structure, a routine that has to be followed." Beyond the "
For Fiona, spending time with her horse is a form of meditation. "Sometimes, when I've had a really rotten day, I'll head up to the barn and just brush Bailey," she says. It's very 'Zen' -- those repetitive movements and patterns -- and you can feel waves of pleasure radiating from the animal." It takes about an hour to thoroughly groom a horse, she says, so by the time Bailey is gleaming, Fiona is feeling peaceful and happy. "Riding is another great stress-buster," she adds. "Galloping across a grassy field blows off a lot of steam for both of us, and meandering along a forest path is immensely relaxing. All thoughts and worries disappear while I'm riding."
Fiona found comfort in the horse world during her parents' divorce (she was 14 at the time). "We didn't have much money, so I worked at barns in exchange for riding," she says. "Then the stable owner more-or-less gave me Bailey, and I worked in exchange for board." Paying for the upkeep of a horse while going to school was a huge responsibility for the teen, but she was happy to face the challenge. "It has been totally worth it," she says. "Bailey has gotten me through some very tough times."
Bailey and Fiona have been a team for more than a decade
Pets and kids
As Fiona discovered, companion animals can also help ease a child's passage through
Chris was thirteen when his parents separated. "After Mom and Dad told me they were splitting up, I remember thinking that I was now the'man of the house' and had to take care of my Mom and little sister Claire," he says. "I had been brought up to think that 'real' men didn't cry, so I resolved not to cry in front of my 'womenfolk.' Luckily, I had Max -- the most wonderful Golden Retriever -- to lean on."
Chris says he
Would you make a good "pet parent"?
But experts warn against rushing into pet ownership -- especially first-time pet ownership -- during the early stages of grief recovery. "Bringing an animal into the home at this stage could add more stress to your life," cautions Marilyn Clark. "You might over-project onto the animal, and become too involved with it. There's a risk that the animal might be expected it to take on all of your emotional needs. This wouldn't be fair to the animal, or healthy for you." Eric Cline agrees. "While we try not to be judgmental in our approach, we recommend that people address their grief first and foremost. We tell them,'Let's get you into a recovery program first, then you'll be able to make the right choice about which pet is right for you.'"
The good news is that there are many ways you can interact with a pet without becoming a pet owner. (And we don't mean flying to Miami to swim with the dolphins.) Here are a few suggestions:
Then, once you're ready to commit to a pet, ask yourself the following
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Help yourself by helping others. Find out if you and your pet qualify for the Humane Society's "Owned Animal Program" by contacting your local branch. St. John Ambulance also operates "Therapy Dog" programs; for more information, contact your local office or log-on to www.saintjohn.org or www.sja.ca.
Through its public awareness campaigns and programs, the U.S.-based Delta Society is an international resource that promotes the important role animals play in improving people's health and well-being. For more information, call (425) 226-7357 (PST) or visit www.deltasociety.org.
HABAC (Human-Animal Bond Association of Canada) promotes awareness and education about the value of the connection between humans and all animals, including zoo animals, wildlife, and pets. For more information about