'I wept when my pet rat Mickey passed away...'
Published 28/12/2012 | 06:00
For the first time in my life, I am without a furry feline friend. My senile puss, Cobi, recently passed away at the venerable age of 17 following in the paw-prints of Willow, my first cat who failed to survive the perils of the nearby main road.
Finally I can leave the house without running a clothes brush over every outfit – but it's not the same. I am bereft without a hairy little attention-seeker winding its way around my ankles.
When I talk about missing my moggies, many are sympathetic – but there have been a few that dared to utter the unthinkable phrase, "sure, it was only a cat".
It's a reaction that, as Stillorgan-based consultant psychologist Owen Connolly explains, is neither helpful nor accurate.
"It's never 'just an animal'," says Connolly, who counsels clients suffering pet bereavement.
"It's a family member, confidant, source of security or bedfellow. When someone is suffering loss, they need to have that sadness acknowledged and comforted so they can start to move beyond it.
"For people who lose a pet, one of the worst things is not being able to share that grief."
Tales of bonds between man and beast have always existed but today's pet owners often seem more attached than in the past. One reason is that animals are living longer. As reported last month by French pet food manufacturer Royal Canin, the life expectancy of cats and dogs is now 20pc higher than 10 years ago.
Thanks to better health care (spending on vets has increased 170pc over the decade), a more balanced diet and widespread spaying and neutering, we're enjoying much longer relationships with pets.
But Co Wicklow veterinarian Pete Wedderburn believes there are other factors.
"There does seem to be a link between the breakdown of family and the importance of pets," he says.
He adds: "Animals are very empathetic. If you come home stressed after a hard day's work, your partner might want to off-load about their own stressful day – a dog will always be delighted to see you."
Unsurprisingly, many pet owners are opting to pay large sums to prolong time with their furry friends.
Earlier this year, Welsh newlyweds Clare and Ceri Morgan made headlines after giving up a €15,000 honeymoon to buy chemo for their bulldog, Teeto.
The good news is, despite the costs and sense of loss, animal lovers win in the long term.
"Studies show that people who live alone, who have animals to care for, often report a higher quality of life, live longer and are healthier than those without," says Connolly.
"The more that's studied the more people recognise the genuine connections between us and those wonderful beasts and creatures that give us so much joy."