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Pets and therapy animals provide comfort in grief

Florence Nightingale, a pioneer of modern nursing, once wrote that a pet "is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long, chronic cases especially." Today, the ability of pet animals to provide comfort to humans in times of grave illness or grief is recognized by medical professionals, therapists, and hospice workers around the world. People who are facing death or mourning the loss of a loved one are often calmed and reassured by the loving companionship of a pet.

We've all heard heartwarming stories about the amazing relationships between pets and humans. Pet animals are known for their unconditional love, and in times of stress, many seem to know instinctively just how to respond. Most pet owners can tell you of a time when a loyal pet lay by their side, attentive and patient, while they were in bed with the flu. That same kind of response can provide immense comfort in loss and bereavement. Because pets are so undemanding, a suffering human can welcome the opportunity to touch or snuggle up with a pet with absolute trust.

For people facing death or living with bereavement, however, pet ownership isn't always practical. Sadly, the terminally ill are often forced to give up their beloved pets because they are no longer able to care for them. Clearly, letting go of a pet can compound the feelings of loss and sadness that are typical in such circumstances. And well-meaning friends may be misguided in suggesting that a non-pet owner get a pet for support in their bereavement following the death of a loved one. Grief is highly personal, and for the newly bereaved, taking on the responsibility of caring for a pet may be too much to manage.

Why not try animal assisted therapy?

In cases like these, animal assisted therapy (AAT) can help to improve the quality of life for the sick and the grieving who do not have pet animals of their own. Although it is a relatively new concept, developed in the 1970s, AAT's origins can be traced to the Mayans, an ancient culture of people who believed that each person is assigned a "soul animal" as a guide through life.

AAT volunteers are specially trained individuals who bring their companion animals to homes and health care facilities to visit and interact with patients and their families who are confronting serious illness, death, and bereavement. By participating in AAT, people can benefit from contact with animals without the responsibility of pet ownership.

AAT has gained rapid acceptance as dozens of studies revealed the amazing impacts of pet-human relationships. For example:

  • Pet animals have been known to lower blood pressure, ease feelings of sadness and pessimism, and reduce the loneliness of patients in long-term care facilities.
  • Children who have pets adjust better to the serious illness or death of a parent.
  • Senior citizens who own pets have fewer doctor visits and reduced health care costs.

More specifically illustrating the roles of pet animals in end-of-life care, a University of California, San Francisco study published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care found that a companion pet or animal can help a person cope with stressful life events, prevent loneliness, and decrease depression.

If you'd like to learn more about companion animals and animal-assisted therapy, contact the Delta Society for information.

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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Coping with your own grief section helpful too.

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