The Human-Animal Bond and Beyond

And even after all this time, the sun never says to the earth “you owe me”. Look want happens to a love like that. It lights up the whole sky – Hafiz

In a continued effort to bring sensitivity and awareness to the difficulties inherent in experiencing the death of a companion animal, it is important to reflect on the nature and depth of the bond between humans and animals. In my clinical practice a significant number of clients who sought treatment for grief counseling following the death of a companion animal scored high on the CABS (Companion Animal Bond Scale). While certainly not a research finding, this is suggestive of a positive correlation between the level of bonding and grief response following the death of a companion animal and warrants further exploration.

There are as many reasons to love our pets as there are stars in the sky with each relationship bringing something magical to that specific era of our lives. The relationship with our pets encompasses some of the strongest bonds known to human life; family member, daily companion, surrogate child, friend, mother, twin, and partner.  Furthermore, this relationship embodies the essence of unconditional positive regard, unconditional love, trust, and safety which provides a wellspring of acceptance and support – something that is needed but not always found in human relationships.

Though many of us might agree that pets’ function as a substitute for human interaction, relationships with our pets are unique, multifaceted and serve many roles therefore should not be viewed simply as a mirror of human relationships.  For example, companion animals’ function as a ‘transitional object’ in that they provide the framework for consistency and predictability in a world that, for some, may be experienced as unstable and chaotic. Companion animals are a secure base, give us a sense of stability, reliability, provide self-soothing/self-calming functions and emotional support during times of uncertainty and change. Unlike other relationships in our lives, our companion animals’ have the innate ability to be our emotional and psychological anchor in the midst of life transitions and crisis’s.  This aspect of the human-animal bond is especially significant for those who have experienced personal trauma, abuse or certain psychological conditions.  In my clinical practice I have seen the positive therapeutic impact of the human-animal bond, especially with Emotional Support Animals in assisting those with mental health issues such as anxiety, panic depression, ADD, and PTSD.

An interesting but not commonly spoken about dynamic underscoring the human-animal bond (as described by both my clients and research participants) is an enriched awareness of the spiritual and connection to nature through engagement with companion animals. One way to conceptualize this experience is through the framework of what biologist Edward O. Wilson calls “Biophilia”, which suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and affiliate with other forms of life. Until most recently (and for most of human history) we have connected to nature on a daily basis in order to fulfill this inborn sensitivity and need for the natural world. We have shaped nature and nature has shaped us, making us an emergent property of this relationship and not surprising, our need for connecting with the natural world includes animals and our relationship with them. However, as our world becomes more urbanized, overpopulated and technology driven, person-to-person interaction and contact with the nature is less significant in everyday life.  Social media has replaced “real time” friendships and the internet age will continue to facilitate a fundamental shift in interpersonal relations. People separating from one another leaves something missing – something core to our existence and our beloved pets fill this gap. Perhaps the recent increase in pet ownership can be understood as a draw towards re-connecting to the natural world from which modern civilization separates us from and it is through engagement with our pets that we are given an opportunity to connect with nature and the natural world. Although domesticated, companion animals are still quite “wild” with senses and abilities that make them suited for survival in nature, and our close relationship with them keeps nature very present in our lives reminding us of the importance of slowing down, disconnecting and simply “being” in the here and now. Again…. more lessons from our companion animals! Conceivably, it is our fundamental desire for love, closeness, and affiliation with nature that draws so many of us to our pets, making that bond extraordinary – especially in today’s world!

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