When I teach our workshop on “Supporting People who are Grieving” – I often tell the story of my sweet dog, Honey. Honey died when she was only 3 years old after having a very rare neurological disease. I talk about her because I know how many folks in the workshop will be able to relate to the deep friendship we shared. As soon as I mention her, the chat box starts to get active and people hold up the animals that are sitting on their laps.
People often ask about animals and pets in our trainings for lots of different reasons. I think more often than not, we are trying to understand how those bonds can be so deep and how it can hurt so badly when we lose them.
Well, there is real neuroscience behind it as it turns out!
Pets have been shown to lower cortisol levels – they literally calm us down when we are experiencing stress. That is why you often see them being used during crisis or tragedy or stressful situations. When someone is going through trauma (and remember trauma can be an event, a series of events or a set of circumstances), the brain is releasing lots of stress chemicals. The effects of those chemicals can be disorienting and physically exhausting as the heart rate and respiration rate goes up. Those effects have a lot of wear and tear on the body over time. Animals can lower those chemical reactions – causing us to feel calmer and more relaxed – sending a message to our brain that things are okay.
We also know that animals create routine. I can tell you my dog Rosie has my day scheduled! I have to feed and walk her at the same times every day or boy, do I hear about it. And Marley the cat is no different! These are micro-routines – those habits that regulate our day. Why is that helpful? Well, when we are managing stress the brain doesn’t like uncertainty. Those micro-routines tell the brain “Your world is predictable and you are safe.” So having habits and routines actually also lowers our stress or helps us manage a mental health challenge - and our pets are a wonderful source of those routines.
Also, for many of us who experience trauma – especially trauma that comes from other people – the love of an animal might be the only unconditional love we may have known. That bond that happens with our pets can often be the only “safe” relationship we feel we have. That connection is deep and healing for our brains because we know a feeling of safety is key to allowing the brain to heal from trauma.
This is why when we talk about grief, I always caution people about comparing losses. If someone you know has recently lost a pet, make sure to check on them and offer your support. The animals in our lives are supporting us in SO many ways – visible and invisible. That love and bonding can be very difficult to grieve.
With all of the things pets do for us – maybe they deserve an extra treat once in a while. I know Rosie would say she does!