Monday, October 9, 2017

Loving A Pet Too Much: When Bonding May Be Unhealthy

[Reviewed and updated December 10, 2022]

There is such a thing as having too much of a good thing.  ~ Michelle Gomez

A reader writes: In my opinion there are just too many people around the world who love their pets more than they love people. Do you have any more detailed information\articles outlining signs of unhealthy relationships with pets? Or maybe you can point me in the right direction.

My response: I'm not sure what is behind your concern about this issue, but I will offer you what I can.

The attachment we feel with our pets varies widely among individuals, depending on the function the animals have in our lives, the personal needs they fill in us and the strength of the emotional bonds we have with them. To illustrate: a farmer's cat whose job is to keep the barn free of rats and mice may be regarded differently from the beloved house cat who provides an elderly woman who lives alone with her only source of unconditional love and companionship.

Is it possible, however, to become too emotionally attached to a pet? Whether the relationship with a pet is unhealthy or not depends on many variables. We know all too well that human relationships can be difficult to form and maintain. Human beings can be moody, irritating and argumentative, and gaining the affection of another person requires a great deal of patience, understanding, effort and sacrifice. And no matter how much we love one another, people can and do leave us. Friends move away, couples separate, spouses divorce, children grow up and families scatter all over the country.

But what about our pets? They are always there for us, readily available, offering an endless supply of love and affection and asking virtually nothing in return. They don't argue with us over money, which movie to see, what's on television or where to go on vacation. They don't talk back, never judge or criticize, and are totally accepting and forgiving no matter how badly or unfairly we've treated them. They make us feel valued, worthwhile and needed, and we don't need to impress them at all to earn their undying devotion and loyalty. What could possibly be wrong with such a wonderful and nurturing relationship?

Attachment to pets is unreasonable and unhealthy when we expect our pets to take the place of another person, because of our own inability or unwillingness to form functional relationships with other human beings. (After several unsuccessful relationships with men, for example, including a failed marriage or two, a woman may find it safer, easier and more emotionally fulfilling to focus on her relationship with a pet, who is never demanding or critical and would never leave her feeling rejected or abandoned. In effect she would be using her pet to mask her own fears of intimacy and commitment with men.)

To evaluate the extent to which one's bond with a pet (or pets) is healthy and reasonable, a therapist or counselor would consider these questions:
  • How much is the person allowing the pet to interfere with his or her life ?
  • Has the person's relationship with the pet adversely affected his or her relationship with a spouse, other close friends or relatives?
  • Does the person turn down invitations if the pet is not included?
  • Does the person relate to the pet to the exclusion of relationships with family and friends?
  • Does the pet occupy the person's thoughts over most other matters?
  • Does the person believe that s/he cannot live without this animal in his or her life?
There is nothing inherently unhealthy about being attached to our pets, unless the attachment is unreasonable, interferes with our ability to relate to others or gets in the way of our daily functioning. Wonderful as it is, love for a pet is not a suitable substitute for human companionship. When the pet's death comes, as it inevitably will, the overly attached person may be devastated, socially isolated and at risk for a complicated grief reaction. The pet's death may signal the end of the most meaningful relationship in the person's life. If the pet was seen as an extension of the self, the death can symbolically represent the individual's own demise, as if an essential part of the person has died also.

Far better that such a pet's death would push the bereaved pet parent to consult a professional grief counselor or therapist for help in confronting some important life issues, such as the fear of intimacy or abandonment. In such cases the death of a cherished pet can be a catalyst for growth, an opportunity to gain insight and a very healing experience.

I also think it's important to remember that for whatever reason, some people are simply unable or unwilling to form healthy attachments to people (children who are autistic, for example, or people who've been abused physically or emotionally, or sociopaths in a prison environment) and companion animals can play a very important role in helping them learn to develop trust in another creature who will love them unconditionally. And remember, too, that people can develop unhealthy relationships with, and become too dependent on, other people, as well as on their animals (as in codependency).

Bottom line? As is usually the case, it all depends on the individual situation!

I hope this answers your question, my friend, or at least sheds some light on it!

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below. If you’d like Grief Healing Blog updates delivered right to your inbox, you’re cordially invited to subscribe to our weekly Grief Healing NewsletterSign up here

© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH 

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