Doggone It, That’s Ruff

by Richard S. Winer, M.D. | Psychiatry, Relationships

In my 27 years in the private practice of psychiatry, I have certainly seen my share of changes in the field over that time. There is a distinct increase in the percentage of male patients I see in my practice now compared to when I started. The amount of ADHD I treat in both children and adults has also grown over the years for a variety of reasons. However, the biggest surprise to me has little to do with the type of patient I meet with or the actual diagnosis being treated. Instead, it has to do with the tremendous importance pets have on the lives of my patients.

Perhaps I was more naïve about this having been raised in a family that never had pets—unless you count the very brief time a goldfish or a hamster inhabited the house. In fact, the animals I paid the closest attention were my beloved Kansas Jayhawks and their rivals the Kansas State Wildcats and Missouri Tigers. Neighbors might have had pets, but more likely my encounter with them occurred when they would chase after me while walking home from school or retrieving a whiffle ball that had landed in their yard.

During my residency training in psychiatry at the Karl Menninger School of Psychiatry in Topeka, Kansas, I came to realize how pets could impact a patient’s health. It was amazing to see how some patients in the state hospital setting could be transformed from being profoundly depressed or maybe even catatonic into people who could smile and talk when a visitor brought a pet onto the unit. Maybe we should have been heeding Dr. Doolittle’s words, “If I could talk to the animals,” as much as the words of other doctors from our training.

Many of my patients have been particularly impacted by their pets and for many reasons. The most common remark I hear has to do with the unconditional love a pet provides. There are no strings attached in this relationship as the love is dispensed almost immediately when the pet sees its owner. No matter how good or bad a day you had and no matter how late it might be, the welcome from a pet upon arrival is as close to a sure thing as people see. Patients talk about how much they have gone through in their lives with their pets by their side. Deaths in the family, changes in family and/or marital status, and financial setbacks might have taken place, but that pet was the one constant in their life.

Pets often serve as reminders of loved ones and loved times. I believe people are much more likely to remember the names of their pets than they are to recall the names of teachers from their childhood or maybe even co-workers from adulthood. When you think about it, people who have pets experience virtually the entire life cycle of a pet. When it comes to humans, one experience we do not want to go through is seeing a loved one from birth to death. If we do, that probably means a younger sibling or even a child has died far too young.

It should come as no surprise that people experience considerable grief and go into mourning over the death of a pet. Many patients over the years have cried in my office talking about the life and death of their pets. Some are apologetic, but they need not apologize. Some can’t understand why they seem more distraught that their dog died than they did when a family member died. Yet, it is understandable when there was that closeness and unconditional love. Many are then unsure what they should do next regarding a pet and there is no exact formula to follow in that situation.

The grief that comes with a loss is every bit as real whether it pertains to a human being, a pet, or other possessions. It is okay to mourn and it is okay to do so at one’s own pace. Grief is natural and nothing to be ashamed of because it is an indication that there has been love in your life. It does not have to disappear.

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