I am not saying anything new when I say that for many of us, companion animals are considered part of the family. In fact, Cohen (2002) found that over 85% of pet owners think of their companion animals as family members, being treated by these pet owners with the same importance and care as other main members of the family.
The choice of companion animals may vary for many reasons, some of which could include space and possible restrictions of the family’s residence, past experiences of family pets, and cultural norms. Irrelevant of the type of pet that the family chooses to have, many families seek the nonjudgmental, affectionate and nonthreatening physical contact that holding, petting and caring for a pet can provide. The presence of pets in the family provides numerous benefits for the members in each part of the family life stages; whether in a family that has young children, in stages where the parents are launching their adult children, and in the older age of parents.
Because of the safe contact and security that a pet can provide, young children may form a very beautiful attachment with pets in the family. This relationship between the pet and the child can teach the child numerous lessons on concern and responsibility for the wellbeing of others, and the value of being gentle, affectionate and kind. Pets also teach children about the different realities of life; for instance, the idea of growing up through watching their pet growing up into an adult, the idea of illness, pregnancy and birth, and even the experience of loss of a loved one.
In a family when children are now moving into adulthood, numerous parents opt to have an animal companion. The care that these parents provide their pet often supports them with dealing with adapting to their changing relationship with their now older children who might be considering leaving the family home. The relationship with the family pet thus offers a sense of stability in the midst of changing family relationships that are being renegotiated.
Numerous research also proves the well-being benefits of the presence of a companion animal in the lives of older persons. Baun and McCabe (2003), for instance, explain how for persons with dementia, family gatherings may become anxiety provoking and confusing. Stroking a family pet during such an event can have a soothing and calming effect for the person, and the presence of the pet can support connection with other members of the family in conversation.
Rebecca Cassar is a Family Therapist practicing the Systemic Approach. She specializes in offering therapy to families, couples and individuals who are experiencing distress in their relationships.