Last Tuesday the family hamster died. Or so I thought.
I broke the news to my eldest son before he departed for school. He left thinking that his beloved pet was dead and that we would bury him that day. I got a shoe box and began to dig a grave in the backyard next to the garden. When I went to retrieve what I believed to be a deceased hamster, I noticed that his body had moved. Curiously I touched his fur and he startled. He was alive A hamster coroner I am not. I had almost buried our pet. During the next week I got to hold him, pet him, and talk to him. Our hamster was, in fact, very sick and dying but he was holding on until the very last. My family had a week to show love and to say our goodbyes to this small creature. Then the day came when at last, we did bury him, and paid our last respects.
All this for a hamster?
I did begin to marvel at how much we grow attached to our pets and consider them to be a part of the family. I actually felt love for the small rodent. When I watched his antics of spinning wildly in his wheel or placing his whiskered face next to the door to his cage to beg for sunflower seeds, I felt a certain joy. Even the task of cleaning his cage was a routine and responsibility which made me feel good. I was helping to take care of another and this in turn, made me feel happy. And when he died I cried over the loss.
There have been many pets to grace my life over the years. I have had cats, dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, frogs, and even hermit crabs. I have loved them all in different ways and when they passed on it was always difficult. I remember one cat in particular who was one of my favorites. Her name was Kit-Kat and she was a black and white tuxedo cat. She was full of indignant personality and had no problems expressing herself. I remember going on vacation once and leaving her with a friend. She was so upset with me that she hid in my friend's basement rafters when I came into the house to retrieve her. Finally peeking over one of the wooden slats, she glared at me, meowed mournfully, and finally came to greet me. She was a cat who made me earn her love and I respected her for it. This cat was there for me through every dramatic event in my life. She was there when I graduated from both high school and college. She was there to keep me company when my mother had a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized. She was there when I broke up with my high school sweetheart. She was there for me when I got married and also when I had my two boys. My cat was a furry friend who I knew I could count on to help me through any of life's challenges and changes.
I remember the day that Kit-Kat died with the utmost clarity. My boys were but infants at the time. Everyone was asleep and she was dying. I held her as she breathed her last breath. I sobbed out loud in an otherwise quiet house. It was so devastating to me. I felt as though I had lost my best friend. Who else could know me as well as this cat did? I remember talking to a friend at work, a co-worker who also loved cats. I asked tearfully, "How long will I feel this pain?" My friend told me that for him, the acute pain lasted about six months and then things got better. My friend was pretty much right. It did take some months before I stopped crying at the mention of her name. This was over a decade now and I still get misty eyed thinking of her. Despite the fact that pets do die eventually, it is well worth the risk to love and care for them.
When I got diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis this past year, I decided that I wanted a dog. I have not had a dog since childhood so this was a most unusual desire. I have tended to be more of a cat person in my adult years. I admire a cat's independence and feline ways. And dogs do seem to be more responsibility with having to walk them no matter what the weather. I did much talking to my family and I had to win over two people, both my husband and my youngest son who has autism. My son who has autism has always been a little afraid of dogs. He likes the idea of them and watches videos about them. But real life dogs seem more daunting. The only dog he has really taken a liking to was a trained guide dog for a volunteer we had who was blind. This lab was an exceptional dog and both well trained and well mannered. My son absolutely does not care for little yappy excitable dogs, probably because they seem unpredictable.
My eldest son was all for getting a dog and has wanted one for years. He was now a budding teen of thirteen and I felt that yes, it is time that he gets his wish. My husband, of course, was worried about whether the dog would fit into our household and who would walk and feed him. So after much discussion and working out the details we decided to choose a dog from the pound. My primary reason for wanting a dog was that I wanted another pet to love and who would love me. I wanted a dog so that perhaps she would inspire me to get outside more and walk. I wanted a dog so that during my times of depression I could have a loyal furry friend to help me to feel better. These were my "selfish" reasons.
My eldest son ended up picking out the dog from the shelter. Angel is a medium sized German Shepard mix with a sweet and gentle disposition. She gravitated towards my son right away and when she was released from her cage and we were sitting before the clerk, signing the papers for her to go home with us, she wrapped her paws around my son's shoulders. And she didn't let go. I knew then that this was the right dog for us. She gets along with all the members of our family and including my young son who has now gotten over his fear of dogs. Angel is now a beloved member of our family.
Pets are good for us and especially for our mental health. They ease loneliness, they can get us out of the house, they give us a way to bond with others who also have pets, they give us a sense of responsibility, and most of all they grant us the ability to love and be loved. In January of 2008 a Newsweek article entitled, "Pets: Good for your Health?" outlined all the major reasons why having a pet is not only good for your mental health but also for your physical health as well:
"Sure, pets provide companionship and unconditional love. But research has shown that they can also help reduce stress and blood pressure in owners, increase longevity in those who've had heart attacks, and even relax and improve the appetites of Alzheimer's patients. "Any disease condition that has a stress-related component to it, we believe pets could ameliorate stress and moderate the situation," says biologist Erika Friednann, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. "It's providing a focus of attention that's outside of someone's self. They're actually letting you focus on them rather than focusing inward on yourself all the time."
Pets are a lot of responsibility, however, and it is wise to choose a pet which is not going to ultimately cause you more stress than not. I believe that even a simple goldfish can be beneficial to your mental health if you allow it. The caring for another creature is quite often what it takes to get us out of ourselves as it is quite often the case that depression leads us to turn inward.
So how about you? What pets have you had over the years? Has having a pet helped you to ease your depression? Please share your stories here. We would love to hear them.