Lola the loveable Labrador was something of a celebrity. She was named after The Kinks’ famous hit of the same name, which talked about gender confusion, because when we saw her at the kennels we thought she was a boy.
She chose us as a family. She came racing up, leaving her slumbering siblings behind, and leapt on my son, licking his face as if he was The One. Who could possibly reject such adoration?
At the time, 10 years’ ago, we were a bereaved family after losing my husband and children’s father, and Lola hauled us out of our collective grief and made us laugh.
Like the time when I was a slimming club consultant – she gnawed her way through a box of chocolate cereal bars, taking the wrappers off each one and scoffing the lot – all 10 boxes of them. The fall-out was indescribable.
We called Lola the empathy dog because whenever we were feeling down, she’d wrap herself around us, or place her head on our laps, just staring at us with those huge brown eyes.
Everyone was welcomed to our house, particularly teenage girls, suffering with angst or boyfriend problems. As they sobbed away, Lola would sit patiently with her head on their shoulder, or lap, or drape herself around their necks, waiting for the tears to subside so she’d receive a grateful cuddle.
Lola died last year. She was diagnosed with a nasal carcinoma and outlived her prognosis by 18 months. She died at home, peacefully, but hung on for two days until my daughter arrived from London, after a mad dash to see her one last time. She died in our arms within 15 minutes of her arrival.
The hole left in our lives is immense. When I arrive home I feel her absence like a stab to the heart. As I write this, I put my hand down and expect her to nuzzle it, but nothing, and at times I feel overwhelmed by the loss of a friend, companion exercise buddy and canine comedian.
Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust psychologist Lianne Franks understands the importance of the pet/human relationship. Mum to ‘fur baby’ Sonny, a Jack Russell cross, the rescue pet is such an important member of the family that he attended her wedding.
Says Lianne: I think pet death is minimised to a certain extent. How many times do we hear ‘I know he was only a dog…”, but grief is grief and the thought of losing my own dog is devastating.”
Lianne says a lot of research has been conducted into the benefits of having a pet – the social interaction, unconditional love, exercise and the fact that it is a non-judgmental relationship make pet ownership important for many, particularly those who are alone or suffering with psychological conditions.
“People with autism for example, who can find it difficult to form human relationships, are significantly impacted when a pet dies,” she says. Evidence also suggests that having a pet can improve depression.
Lianne says that’s why it is vital to go through the grieving process when a pet dies in the same way as if a human had died.
“A pet has often been with us through many experiences in our lives and has become a part of the family. When we minimise that grief we’re not going through the necessary process of resolving it and that’s detrimental to wellbeing. The grief of losing a pet can also trigger past grief associated with the loss of a loved one,” she says.
Currently, employers do not allow time off for pet bereavement, it must be taken as sick or annual leave, but Lianne believes that needs to change.
“This is where I feel the stress of losing a pet is minimised. It’s not taken seriously enough. But losing an animal can be just as traumatic as losing a person. We’re all different and should be treated as such.”
How your pet keeps you healthy and sane
1. They keep you active. Research shows that older adults who own a dog have a lower body mass index, make fewer visits to the doctor and do more exercise. Also, the stronger your bond with your pooch, the more likely you are to walk, and spend longer walking.
2. Boost cardiovascular health. The American Heart Association undertook a big piece of research looking at how owning pets affects your chance of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD) – these are conditions that affect your heart and blood, such as stroke or coronary heart disease. Researchers found that having a pet – a dog, in particular – is probably associated with reducing your chances of developing CVD, though they were careful not to overstate this. In a follow-up study researchers again looked at how having a dog or cat affected your health, and this time felines came up trumps. They found that having a cat is associated with a reduced chance of dying from CVD, especially strokes. This shows that it’s not just the exercise associated with having a pet that helps you – the stress relief and companionship also have very physical benefits.
3. They make you sociable. It’s important for our physical and mental health to have contact with other people – and our four-legged friends are a brilliant way to get you talking. Social isolation is a huge health problem, particularly for the elderly. In fact, social isolation can increase your chances of dying early.
4. Pets stop loneliness. It’s not just that pets help you build a wider social network – many people have pets as companions. They make you happy, give you a routine and are great company – all of which adds your quality of life and boosts your everyday mental health. A 2009 study found that pet-owners over the age of 60 who lived alone were four times less likely to develop clinical depression compared with people who didn’t have pets.
5. Reduce your stress. Research from Buffalo University in New York found that pet owners reacted less to stress – and recovered from it much quicker – when their pets were present. And that’s not all – another study took 48 people with high blood pressure and high stress jobs. Researchers measured how they responded to stress before the test. Then, some of them bought a pet and six months later researchers again measured their response to stress. After 6 months pet owners had less of a physical response to stress compared with those who didn’t have a four-legged friend.