The power of pets
At various stages growing up my sisters and I had guinea pigs, ducks, fish, mice, cats and a dog. I’m sure there was a school holiday or two spent minding the classroom rabbit and gerbil too. We witnessed life and death, experienced unconditional love and learned what it meant to be responsible caring for another living creature.
Now as adults we each have pets that are part of our own growing families. Given that over eight out of ten Australians have owned a pet at some stage of their lives, and almost two thirds of Australia’s 7.5 million households currently own pets, it seems my family is not alone in embracing pets as a part of life.
Living well with pets
When Tanya Burke and her husband were expecting their first child three years ago people started eyeing their German Shepherd with alarm.
“There were comments along the lines that babies and dogs like ours didn’t mix and perhaps we’d be wise to get a smaller dog,” says Mrs Burke. “But our dog is a valued family member and we’d spent the time and effort in training her. We couldn’t have wished for a better companion for our daughter. The two of them (dog and daughter) adore each other.”
“They play together and have tiffs like siblings but they also stick together. When my daughter is ill or tired the dog will be close by nuzzling her or cuddling up close. When the dog was seriously ill recently I was gob-smacked when my daughter burst into dance and sang to the heavens, whilst waving feathers and stamping in the dogs water bowl, to ‘take the ouchies away’. The dog, by the way, made a remarkable recovery.”
Indeed overseas research has found that pets hold a similar status in children’s lives to family, teachers, best friends and carers. Asked who they would turn to in a troublesome situation pets featured in children’s top 10 replies. Children considered their cat just as important as their mother, as a source of comfort in times of stress and illness, and dogs were nominated in second place as the preferred protector if walking down a dark alley.
Denise Humphries, a consultant to Petcare Information and Advisory Services says, “Pets have long been considered conducive to a person’s social, physical and emotional well being. You only need to see a child’s face light up when they’re with their pet, to understand the important role pets play in a child’s life.”
Pets are great as a teacher, a family member, a playmate and can help kids to:
- Learn about respect and compassion;
- Enjoy affection and unconditional love;
- Cope with illness and death, and understand the basics of reproductive behaviour;
- Develop skills to look after themselves and others;
- Make friends easily and develop social skills;
- Be more active;
- Feel more secure and improve their self esteem;
- Spend more time with their family through the shared care and love of an animal.
How to pick a pet or two
Pet ownership is not all about fluffy kittens and roly-poly puppies. In fact too many pets find their way to animal shelters because their former owners didn’t understand what was involved in looking after them.
Dr Jenny Wingham, a vet in Melbourne’s south east says, “Firstly it is important to look at your family’s lifestyle. Secondly consider how much time you have to spend with your pet. All pets need shelter, food, water, exercise, preventative health care and above all love and affection.”
Pets are a wonderful addition to the family but ensure you do your research and choose carefully, unless one of the things you want to teach your kids is that it’s acceptable to take home a living creature, try it out and return if they don’t suit.
Online resource Pet Net helps kids and families decide what pet is right for them and how to correctly care for and enjoy their pets.
Saying goodbye to pets
Because of animals’ shorter life-cycles the death of a treasured pet is inevitable at some time in family’s lives. It is very often the first experience children will have with dying, death and the associated grief and loss.
“Therefore we have a wonderful opportunity to teach our children about mortality and the fact that all living things have different life spans,”says Dr Emma Whiston, who owns and operates My Best Friend, a veterinary service which provides end of life care for elderly and terminally ill pets, and bereavement support for their owners.
“Spend time talking with your child about lifecycles and the processes of birth and death. Children do best when told the truth in clear, correct language about what is going on. This also can avoid confusion or mistaken beliefs,” she says recalling a case where a child was terrified when told she was ‘being put to sleep’ for a general anaesthetic as the euphemism had also been used to explain what had happened to her beloved pet.
Dr Whiston says that rituals “are a way of honouring the pet and channeling the grief” and recommends that children have the choice to be involved in any funeral arrangements, funerals or memorial services. Ways in which grief is expressed for the pet will depend on the strength of the emotional bond between them and the age of the child, as well as the response of other family members.
“Even though it is usually a very, very sad and painful time for many parents to observe their children during this process a healthy and honest approach to the management of grief and bereavement is very important for future experiences to be positive, whether they involve other pets or human family and friends,” says Dr Whiston.
The therapeutic powers of animals, in particular dogs, are having a transformative effect on many children who face challenges such as vision impairment, physical challenges, behavioural issues or recovery from illness, as well as children who have experienced physical or sexual abuse.
“Interacting with an animal can change a child’s behaviour”, says Hollee Curran, coordinator of the Pet Partners program at Delta Society Australia, which runs training and programs that promote and facilitate positive interaction between people and animals. “The special bond that develops between the child and the animal significantly contributes to the effectiveness of their treatment and brings joy and laughter into an otherwise glum environment.”
Delta is currently working with The Westmead Children’s Hospital in New South Wales to introduce a Pet Partner program working with children with brain and/or spinal injury. “Many of the therapeutic goals the children are working towards require laborious, painful and repetitive exercises,” says Ms Curran. “With the involvement of a Delta dog they have another member on their team to help them reach their full potential. They are distracted from their pain, are having a positive social interaction with the animal handler who is not a member of the medical staff and can approach their therapy playfully.”
The Tail’s End
My family has a Golden Retriever who, despite ruining our garden, traipsing muddy feet and shedding hair through the house, makes us laugh. She ensures we get our daily exercise and reminds us of the importance of being in the moment.
She is everyone’s best friend and has managed on many an occasion to diffuse an argument– by literally flopping down between the warring parties and breaking the tension.
Put simply the power of pets is that they help us be the best we can.
by Miranda Brash Brenan
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, October 2008.