My feline companion of almost twenty years recently died. Silos lived a good, loved life and had a peaceful death at home, with my husband, Patrick, and me there with him. Nevertheless, for some time after Silo’s death, I felt utterly destroyed. Even though I have many times mourned the death of close grandparents, cousins, and friends, after Silos’s death, I sank into depths of despair I have never felt before in my life.
Should I be ashamed to admit this? Should I be embarrassed? Our society would have me think that I should not grieve the death of an animal more than that of a human. Indeed, in my conversations with many patients and non-patients who lost companion animals, I have found that most people have felt pressured to downplay their love for those animals. Although this is gradually changing, too often, instead of giving compassion and empathy, colleagues, friends, and even family members tell those who mourn an animal that they are being silly to care so much – after all, they are just animals. Get over it, they say. Buck up!
We laugh together and cry alone. Grief is even lonelier when an animal dies because it’s less valued than grief over the death of another human. Sociologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists have been slow to appreciate the impact of the loss of an animal. But studies show that an animal’s death can cause poor sleep, missed days from work, significant distress, and depression. Among those who lose animals they deeply love, the extent of their grief is similar to that of those mourning the death of a cherished person.
It should not come as a surprise that humans are capable of deep affection and love for other animals, be they dogs, cats, or rescued pigs, raccoons, chickens or horses. In the early 1980s, biologist Edward O. Wilson recognized and defined the human innate desire to connect with other living beings as biophilia. It is the hypothesis that humans naturally connect with nature and animals and that our affinity is rooted in our biology. It is a love of life in its simplest definition. It is part of who we are as fellow animals on this planet. Wilson wasn’t necessarily arguing that we all seek a bond with animals, but I believe that it is in our relationships with animals where our biophilia is especially evident.
Almost two-thirds of American households include animals as part of their families. And when we can’t bring animals into our homes, we look for them elsewhere. We visit wildlife sanctuaries, we join bird watching clubs, we take safaris in Africa, and we watch countless YouTube videos of animals doing things and behaving in ways we thought only humans do. We seek a bond with animals. Our need to be with animals is so deep and instinctively strong that our biology is not just biophilia. It is animalphilia.
We choose to connect with animals. When we encounter another animal, no matter how fleeting that moment may be, we know that we are not alone. And that is comforting.
In fact, how we experience empathy toward animals may not be so different from how we experience it toward other humans. Researchers from the Department of Psychology at Brandeis University and the Pennsylvania State University found that when we are shown pictures of either humans suffering or dogs suffering, there is a great deal of overlap in our neural responses to both.
When we empathize with and connect with animals, we expand our social circle beyond our species. This expansion can lead to remarkable, and often startling, benefits. Studies are showing that animal companionship can reduce our risk of heart disease, increase longevity, lower our cholesterol levels, boost our mental health, and reduce stress. When you walk through your front door at the end of a stressful day and your critter greets you, can’t you just feel your blood pressure lowering? Stroking an animal relaxes our autonomic systems, as measured by blood pressure, cortisol, and epinephrine levels, and by respiratory rates and skin temperature.
And here’s an important thing to note: Other species aren’t just substitutes for humans. The social support animals provide is independent of human social support. Animals seem to affect us in unique ways. They don’t judge us (except by how kind we are to them). They don’t compete with us like other humans and they offer us emotional and psychological release. As a result, animals defuse a lot of the human-generated pressure in our lives. Animals remind us that the world is larger than us. They can teach us to look beyond the racism, poverty, and cruelty in our lives – to step out of our daily struggles and see the beauty that surrounds us.
Perhaps it’s now time to acknowledge freely and openly that loving another animal is a unique and wonderful experience that should never be dismissed as insignificant. The animals in our lives are not mere shadows of human companionship. Animals are individuals in their own right; unique beings who enrich our lives with their friendships. Rather than discounting the innate human bond with other species, we should embrace it for the wonderful gift it is.
Silos gifted Patrick and me daily. He helped us experience the pure joys of just being silly, of feeling unconditional love, and of being completely in the moment. I miss his chasing the laser light around the house. I miss his nightly operas. I miss his drooling when he is kneading my stomach. I miss his yelling at me to get up when I sleep in on weekends. I miss his warm body next to mine when we sleep. I miss him. I miss Silos so deeply; it hurts. And I say this without any shame.
I don’t miss my pet. I don’t miss my cat. I miss my Silos.
Aysha Akhtar, M.D., M.P.H., is a double-board certified neurologist and preventive medicine/public health specialist. She is the CEO of the Center for Contemporary Sciences, pioneering the transition to replace the use of animals in experimentation with effective human-based technologies. Dr. Akhtar is the author of the recent book, Our Symphony With Animals. On Health, Empathy and Our Shared Destinies.