For many, the spiritual aspect of the bond spins a vibrant web that catches us and holds us together, at least for the pet’s lifetime and often longer.
Pawspice, my name for pet hospice, is a bigger part of our practice as the recession deepens and families can’t afford first-line care for their pets. Is Pawspice a containing structure for witnessing this thread more often? Is it the loom that holds the elements, emotions and threads of the human-animal bond?
A Spiritual Bond
As a beloved pet nears the end of life, pet owners often tell me about the transcendent elements in their relationship. The spiritual threads in their bond spin into a very meaningful realm that may extend after the pet has passed.
This was the case for Carole Kammen and her beloved yellow Labrador retriever, Butter. A friend told Carole to call me for advice after Butter’s cutaneous lymphoma became resistant to the best of care at the University of California, Davis.
Butter “found” Carole only four years previously, as a 9-year-old retired service dog. Butter became so attached to Carole that it became obvious to Carole and Butter’s owner that Butter had chosen Carole, who had never owned a dog.
The bond between Carole and Butter strengthened during the dog’s acute pancreatitis. “It was unthinkable that I could leave her,” Carole said. Carole stayed with Butter in the hospital for four days, and her presence helped Butter recover. Afterward, Butter and Carole were inseparable.
Since Butter was a service dog, she traveled the world with Carole on business. The Monks of New Skete had taught Butter to lie still during meditations, so she readily participated in Carole’s spiritual intelligence workshops.
Over the years, Carole learned to sense Butter’s needs.
Noting that she had never been close to her mother, Carole said, “I had never felt in myself that fierce determination and connection to be with another human being. I felt protected and nourished, just by Butter’s presence, by her simply being with me on airplanes, in hotel rooms and at work. She was my constant.
“I would often experience a kind of reversal in the pet ownership relationship: Butter was taking care of me. For the first time in my life, I was in a ‘we’ relationship—with Butter.”
In January, Butter was diagnosed as having splenic hemangiosarcoma and cutaneous lymphoma. Carole was terrified to lose Butter, and Butter was terrified at hospital visits.
Carole said to Butter, “I will follow your lead. I will trust that you will let me know when it is time for you to die. If you want treatment, just tell me. Either way, let me know.” Carole said Butter calmed instantly. With this pact, they enjoyed seven months of good quality time around Butter’s chemotherapy and radiation.
When Butter’s cutaneous lymphoma became resistant, Carole’s assistant called our office and faxed Butter’s medical records. Carole was on the road, so I recommended that she see a local oncologist for pre-emptive pain medications and antibiotics for Butter’s oozing skin lesions.
Carole told me, “You are the first to recognize that Butter might be in pain.” I told Carole that Butter needed to enter Pawspice. After that, I asked Carole how she was handling the situation.
Honoring the Bond
Carole’s grief counselor, chaplain Brad DeFord, Ph.D., wrote:
“Carole knows herself to be someone who had difficulties in relationships with other people. Yet with Butter, a relationship grew unlike any she had felt, or allowed herself to feel, before. Carole could trust Dr. Alice with her own feelings and emotional process.
“Having previously experienced a condescending and even paternalistic attitude from other veterinarians, Carole was refreshed to find that Dr. Alice talked with her person to person, honoring her relationship with Butter. In Dr. Alice, Carole found a compassionate counsel that she needed as she prepared for Butter’s death. This meant more than discussing treatment options; it meant finding in Dr. Alice someone who understood, someone who would support her, someone to whom she could turn for her own needs.
“Carole said, ‘Dr. Alice helped me with her knowledge. Her Quality of Life Scale gave me a means of objective reference for gauging where Butter was in her dying process. She supported my hope that Butter die naturally, but also made me aware that I needed to be her protector. It was my duty to protect Butter from undue suffering, if needed, with the gift of euthanasia. She supported my trust that somehow Butter would let me know when it was time. She helped me find Butter’s mission with me, arming me with a purpose to create a new category of service dogs for people and travelers like me who need emotional support.’
“After Butter’s home euthanasia, Carole arranged for a “community of care”—friends who would help her bury Butter with rituals befitting a best friend. Carole said, “I had never been able to grieve before, but here I was able to grieve because I had loved so well.”
A Spiritual Aspect
Some pet owners seek a deeper communication with their pets. They might consult pet communicators, practice mental telepathy or visualize thoughts for their pet to read. It makes no difference how it’s done as long as one feels or senses the golden thread of communication with their companion animal. It is such a delight to sense and appreciate that for many, there is a spiritual aspect of the human-animal bond.
Let me know if you have had this experience.
Alice Villalobos is a past president of the American Association of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians and president of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics.