Opinion: A pet offers you complete respect, unconditional love and no judgement even when you don't feel so good about yourself

By Rachel Mc HughLetterkenny Institute of Technology

The death of a beloved pet can be hugely traumatic and overwhelming. For some people, it can be as traumatic as losing a friend or family member. This is often downplayed, and sometimes misunderstood. It is only understood when someone knows exactly how it feels and has had a pet in their life for a period of time, who they loved as part of their family.

When you think about it, your pet is with you every day in your home. You see them more than most friends and family members. Your pet is there for you through the good times and bad. Animals are super sensitive, and can pick up on our emotions and body language. Have you ever felt your dog's chin nestle on your knee when you are having a bad day? Or when you play fight with your partner, and your dog jumps to your rescue? This is because pets react to your emotions and  are truly full of love as they see you as head of their 'pack'. You are their world and the love that you give them, is given back tenfold.

For example, research shows that having a dog is good for your mental and physical health. In mental health settings, patients have often reported that their sole reason to carry on is because of their dog. Dogs are said to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Playing with or cuddling your dog can release serotonin - a happy hormone - and this can influence human emotions in a positive way. Dogs also aid the release of oxytocin – the bonding hormone – which reduces blood pressure, increases tolerance to pain and reduces anxiety.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, the Dogs Trust's Corina Fitzimon and psychologist Sabina Brennan on dealing with the loss of a pet

Dog owners are more active and having a dog promotes physical activity. On average, those who have a dog live two years longer than those who do not. Having a pet promotes a healthy structure and routine to our day. Dogs are a healthy form of distraction, and simply good company: when you have a dog, you are never alone.

Dogs are great companions but they also help people to interact socially on walks, or in conversations. They can also help improve self esteem and initiate friendships. Dogs are extremely smart and can be trained as service dogs for therapeutic benefits, guide and hearing aids, and medical alert dogs for conditions like diabetes.

Dogs teach responsibility. Similar to having a child, a dog relies on you completely. They need you to survive and they depend on you. Similarly, they can be someone’s reason to smile, and to live. Caring for an animal can help children grow up more secure and active. Dogs are there for you even when you lose your job, when you have had a bad day, or you just don’t walk to talk. They can simply just be there.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Louise McSharry show, the DSPCA's Gillian Bird on how to keep your pet safe following an increase in missing dog appeals across social media.

We cannot talk with our pets, but dog lovers report a bond that does not need words. We can just sit together, and say nothing, yet there is a sense of understanding, happiness and love. Best of all, we cannot have arguments with our dogs! Unless they misbehave, but, usually with shake of the tail and a paw given, all is quickly right in the world again.

How many people can you say that about? Someone who offers you complete respect, unconditional love and no judgement, even when you don’t feel so good about yourself.

This is why when that dreaded day comes, the loss is huge. It is as if we have lost a family member. Similar to human loss, we go through the five stages of grief. Firstly, denial that they are really gone for good. Denial is a common defence mechanism that buffers the shock, and numbs our emotions. Secondly, anger when pain and reality re-emerge. Third, bargaining, where we try to regain a sense of control which follows with guilt, when we go over the situation to try to come to terms with what could have went differently. Fourthly is when the true pain and sadness hits us. Finally, with time, comes some level of acceptance - where we realise that our loved one is gone, and it is really happening.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Jennifer Zamparelli show, author and hen owner Fiona Dylan with advice for those who are considering hens as pets

If you have loved a pet, this is the exact same process that you have probably went through on some level. It makes sense, as with love comes grief. If only, we could keep these precious creatures, our little best friends a little longer. But would any length of time be enough? Most pet lovers say that the pain is worth the memories, and worth it to have had their pet for how long that they did.

If you have lost a pet and you are feeling overwhelmed and sad, this is normal. It is not always acknowledged but it is. You have lost a loved family member and you will always miss them, and your body is reacting in the same way that it would with a human loss. Just know, your pet loved you as much as you loved it, and you made it’s time on earth wonderful. If you had to make the heart-breaking decision to help your pet along on their way, know that this was only out of kindness, and your pet knows this too.

READ: 5 reasons why greyhounds make great family pets

If you are considering getting a pet, be prepared as this will eventually happen. However, the positives – the unconditional and non-judgemental love, the fun, and the benefits to your physical and mental health - outweigh the inevitable that we must all face with everyone that we love in life. You are providing a pet with love, safety and a home, but what you get in return is way more than words can describe.

Dr Rachel Mc Hugh is a Research Associate in Mental Health at Letterkenny Institute of Technology 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ