Unconditional Love – Pets and Mental Health

I am not doing too well at the moment. If you asked me over the past couple of decades what helps my mental health – high up there on the list, if not at the top – would have been my cats. Brother and Sister, Ixxy and Poppy. They have been my world. I don’t have children. They have been with me through thick and thin. Until now.

Some days ago we had to say goodnight to Ixxy. A very rapid decline, weightloss, lack of interest in food, lethargy, fast breathing – revealled a cancer which had clearly been hidden for a while, and maybe explained some other changes we had put down to ageing. He was 18 years old. Somewhere around 18 years and four or five months. Up until this recent deterioration he had been quite a young cat for his years. Healthy. Happy. Beautiful. No doubt I will write about him more elsewhere. But as I grieve I wanted to write a little about the joys and woes of pet ownership (or having a companion animal, – not our property but our friend), and its relation with mental health.

A lot is said about the benefits. They are many. Pets can give us companionship, company, love, solace, laughter. They give us a focus for our attention, someone to care for, structure, responsibility. They teach us about life, and death. Pet ownership is linked to less depression, lower blood pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol, longer survival of heart attacks, better overall health. They have a positive impact on those pesky brain chemicals which are associated with anxiety and depression. They give us emotional attachment, they improve our ability to relate to other creatures including other humans.

It cannot be underestimated the joy and positivity that animals can bring to our lives if we allow them, if we take the honour of caring for them seriously and enjoy the gift of love this new family member can bring us. Because they are – they can be, a beloved family member. I don’t have children, I don’t have siblings. But I have / had my cats. I had my dog when I was young. I can’t say if I would feel something greater for a human – I will never know. But my animals have never let me down the way some humans have.

Of course – this all has a price. The potential positive impact must always be weighed against the negatives, and potential costs, financial and emotional. Love has a price, and I am paying it right now. Losing a pet – especially after a long time with them, can be utterly devastating. You know it is going to happen – unless something goes wrong, or you are very old when you get them, your pet’s life is going to be shorter than yours. But that doesn’t mean you are ever ready for it. Sometimes – you have to make the choice to end their suffering, a kindness we mostly cannot offer our human family. You know it is probably the right, the compassionate thing to do – but it comes with awful guilt and sorrow. And echoes of the moment if you stay to comfort them in their last moments – which for me, was a necessity. It hasn’t been a week yet. No heart that large and loving can be forgotten or got over so quickly.

But there is another cat in my life to care for too – his sister. Equal in age – her own health worries, and now I am observing to see how she is dealing with his absence. They didn’t get on really, they mostly kept to themselves. But they have been together their entire lives. She has never been without him this long. She seems a little more needy. More sad. She made a weird noise the other night. Loving is worrying. Keeping an eye on them. Monitoring their food and water intake, toileting, energy and behaviour. Finding a balance between safety and freedom. Keeping them entertained while not annoying them too much. Tell me again how they are not my children?

Pets cost money too of course. More depending on how fastidious you are going to be about caring for them properly. Some require more equipment or set up than others. All require food, some form of bedding or litter. Toys maybe. And medical care – vaccinations, boosters, flea and worm treatment, spay/neutering. And that’s if they don’t get ill. Maybe you get insurance to guard against that. My biggest anger in this whole process has been the fact that I paid for insurance for about 15 years of their lives, at which time the premiums became too much. At exactly the point when they are more likely to need care – they price you out so they don’t have to pay. I know it’s the way insurance works, how they make money. But when it’s life and health it seems unethical. Like Health Insurers in America refusing to cover certain illnesses or treatments because they cost too much. How difficult would it be to offer a lifetime cover – guaranteed to cover the whole of an animal’s life, with an averaged out premium from the word go. So you can make sure that you can treat illnesses that come up later in life, to give longer lives (hence more premiums) – and also, crucially, that animals are not left to suffer unnecessarily, or put to sleep without confirmation that there is no other option. It has cost me over £1000 to find out my boy was dying, to say goodbye and the consequent arrangements. When I took him in, it could have been a stomach bug putting him off his food and causing weight loss. It took £700 to find out it was not. If I hadn’t had access to that £700 in credit or cash – what then? Sorry baby, you come home and we keep our fingers crossed? And potentially horrible suffering. I mention all of this – because for all the pain and worry I have had, I at least know I did what I could for him. The torture of not being able to do right by him because of money would have been worse. And that worry comes right through their lives. Money worries weigh heavier on you when you know they also impact your ability to care for your dependents – human or otherwise.

Despite the pain, the worry, the cost – I would hate to have lived a life without these little creatures with their enormous characters. If their impact on my mental health were to be a bank account, it would be heavily in credit – despite these recent hefty withdrawals.

Part of the problem I have is that back of the mind thing – which comes from things said by people who don’t really get it – who have never had decent connection with animals, which suggests you should somehow just shrug off the loss and move on. Which is offensive and absurd. Only you know what someone means to you, only you know what you are feeling, and why. There are all sorts of complexities to my grief at the moment, that come from the importance of Ixxy to me – from the fact I had to be the one to let him go – from his relationship with my husband – from his connection to my former partner, sadly no longer with us. Loss is not simple. So sometimes it takes time to deal with. And sometimes we need help.

I have added some resources relating to pet bereavement to the national resources section – there are useful information pages, helplines and support out there if you too are in this sad and difficult place. If you are – my love to you. I hope their memories are a blessing to you, and that you find comfort in time.

(If anyone is in a position and would like to help with Ixxy’s vet fees – there are a range of options on this Twitter thread, from buying a card or print, joining me on a mental health course, to simple donation.)

Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Service

Cats Protection – Paws to Listen Grief Support Service

EASE Animals – Pet Loss Support

Friends at the End – British Horse Society

Living with Pet Bereavement

Ixxy Long – March 2004- July 2022 – Always loved.

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