By Barbara Sternberg, Ph.D
Our pets occupy a special place in our lives and our hearts partly because they love us no matter who we are. Successful or not, rich or poor, young or old, our pets not only don’t care, but remain constant as our own human fortunes ebb and flow.
We see this constancy in the way our pets greet us after we return from an absence. A pet’s greeting is always exuberant, as if they are welcoming home a long-lost, beloved family member. The pet makes no demands on us (other than to return its greeting and maybe get scratched) and harbors no ill feelings over having been left behind. This happy homecoming replenishes us and helps us feel that life is safe, that everything is as we left it, and that we have not changed.
When humans face serious trials—illness, loss of a job, the disabilities of aging— affection from a pet becomes even more important. The pet’s continued affection shows us that the essence of the person has remained unchanged. For this reason, pets can be of enormous value in the treatment of depressed or chronically ill individuals, as well as the institutionalized elderly.
Playing with a pet—a game of catch, or friendly roughhousing, has a kind of constancy to it because pet play does not involve true competition. Even a game of tug-of-war is played in fun — for the pleasure of both participants. Typical pet games, once learned, stay constant, just as the animal does. Playing games with our pets is reassuring and provides a break from life’s burdens. One of the great pleasures of pets—whether we are playing with them or just watching them—is their appeal and their ability to make us smile and laugh. Laughter is therapeutic, and our pets are able to induce it with great regularity.