By Dr. Becker
Now that the holidays are behind us, by a show of hands, how many of you:
- Bought at least one gift for your pet?
- Hung a stocking with Fluffy or Fido's name on it?
- Scheduled a holiday photo session for your pet (like I did)?
- Cooked a special holiday meal for your furry baby?
So Are We Nuts, or What?
According to a recent survey:
- 81 percent of pet owners consider their pets full members of the family. (Well of course we do!)
- 58 percent refer to themselves as their pets' 'mommy' or 'daddy.'
(This isn't technically accurate, of course, but the love, devotion and concern most of us feel for our companion animals is identical to the emotions a parent feels for a child.)
- 77 percent buy birthday gifts for their pets. (No surprise here. Most of us remember clearly the day our beloved dog, cat or other pet came into our lives, and to remember that special day each year with a celebration or gift seems only natural.)
- Over half of pet owners say they talk about their furry loved ones more often than they talk politics or sex. (A wise choice, if you ask me!)
So is going gaga over our pets psychologically unhealthy? Not according to the mental health professionals interviewed by USAToday.com. Their view:
The blatant puppy love much of America is displaying does not spell the end of society as we know it, and the pet-obsessed are not pathetically off-kilter humans in need of intense therapy.
According to Stanley Coren, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia and a Psychology Today columnist on human-pet interactions, "Most people recognize, whatever endearments they use or actions they might take, that their pets are not furry humans."
Professor Coren goes on to say that emotionally healthy people possess a need to nurture, and pets can be the perfect 'nurturees.' As if to prove Coren's point, the largest and fastest growing groups of pet devotees are empty nesters, singles, people without children, and the homebound.
In return for all the love we give our pets, we receive proven health benefits like reduced stress, faster recovery from illness, improved fitness and better social interaction with others.
And an added bonus of our relationship with our pets is there's never the kind of conflict between us like there can be between humans. And let's be honest … most of us could use a few more conflict-free connections in our lives!
For Those Who May Feel Over-Attached to a Pet …
If you're concerned your bond with your pet is unhealthy – or heading in that direction – here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Has your devotion to your pet caused problems in your relationship with your spouse, partner, a close friend or relative?
- Do you refuse invitations to go places and do things if your pet isn't included?
- Do you spend more time bonding with your pet than you do nurturing relationships with family and friends?
- Do you feel content just with your pet, and tend to avoid interacting with other people?
- Do you spend more time thinking about your pet than other matters in your life?
- Do you feel you could not survive without your pet in your life?
Your attachment to your pet shouldn't interfere with your ability to relate to others. It shouldn't negatively impact your day-to-day ability to function.
Love for your pet shouldn't become a substitute for human companionship.
It's tempting during periods of emotional turmoil to lock the doors, close the blinds, turn off the phone and focus all our attention on the one being who loves and accepts us unconditionally – our cherished animal companion.
But for many reasons, it's just not healthy to depend solely on your pet for friendship and love.
As terrible as it is to contemplate, the vast majority of us will outlive our beloved animals. A person with an unhealthy attachment to her pet can experience emotional devastation, social isolation, and an overwhelming, unmanageable grief response when the pet dies.
If you feel your attachment to your pet is the most meaningful relationship in your life, and the thought of living without him causes extreme feelings of dread or anxiety, I recommend you talk with a therapist about your fears and concerns.
If you've recently lost your pet and are overwhelmed by feelings of pain and sadness, I encourage you contact a professional grief counselor who can help you cope during this terribly difficult time.