Last November, I spent a week in Japan presenting an oncology and end-of-life-care symposium for veterinary students at Nihon University in Tokyo. For three hours every day I taught and interacted with students, general practitioners and faculty.
Dr. Tomoko Takahashi, head of oncology and radiation therapy services at the university, was my faculty host. Dr. Takahashi gave me an office in the teaching hospital to serve as my headquarters for the week. I set special hours for students to speak with me in private.
The week started routinely. But when I lectured on end-of-life care, palliative therapy and pet hospice, which I call Pawspice, many students had teary eyes and used tissues to dab their faces as they took notes.
It was obvious that a number of students were in emotional pain. I was surprised to see that Dr. Takahashi was filled with emotion as she interpreted certain aspects of attachment and grief management that are part of my lectures on palliative and Pawspice care.
Starving for Information
Students stayed and chatted with me at the end of the sessions. They told me they had never heard anyone discuss attachment and the human-animal bond and dying. They wanted to hear more about it. They wanted to know how to talk frankly with their clients about terminal pets and help them accept a pet’s death. They were starved to learn more about using compassion in an everyday approach to end-of-life care.
Students did not come to my office after the straightforward classes on tumor biology, immunology and therapy. They came only after we started discussing the psychosocial issues encountered in Pawspice care.
Some students tearfully recalled when their family pet died and how devastated their parents and siblings felt afterward. Asking questions, I discovered that most of their families remained attached to their deceased pet and never acquired a new one.
This profound and permanent grief seemed to be the pattern and the norm for Japanese families. Many students also felt they would never get a pet for themselves because they were still too sorrowful over the death of their childhood pet. Often, their beloved family pet had died more than five or 10 years earlier.
Why hadn’t their families gotten a new dog or cat? Japanese pet lovers believe that their pet’s spirit remains in the home after death. Family members interact with their deceased pet’s spirit by thinking about the pet and communicating their thoughts and emotions. They believe that their pet’s spirit would be offended if they were to welcome another pet into their lives and home.
A Form of Bondage
For me, it seemed so sad and so unnatural for the loving Japanese people to be cheated of a full life with pets because of their cultural beliefs. I informed these veterinary students that no matter the custom, as a philosophy it is very bad for their future business as veterinary practitioners in the aging Japanese society.
This culturally based idea of the human-animal bond feels more like a form of bondage. It would be devastating for me and my husband, Ira, and for millions of Americans, Europeans and pet lovers worldwide.
Ira and I do not have children, so our house would feel very empty without our pets. If we did not form new attachments and adopt new pets after our dogs or cats passed on during the last three decades of our marriage, we would have been cheated of so much joy, enrichment and unconditional love.
The thought crossed my mind to suggest that Japanese families get pets that have long life spans. Ira and I have such pets, including our African tortoise, Sulchy, and our two macaws, Stanley and Max. Some people are able to keep their beloved horses for over two decades.
Much of our daily home life centers on our dogs and cats. We would miss the routine of feeding and caring for our pets. We would miss out on our daily dog walking, which takes us into the neighborhood, meeting and greeting our friends.
We would miss all the joyful interactions, moments of laughter and loyalty our pets bring us. We would be cheated of those special precious moments of petting our animals and lounging around the house with them.
I would not feel safe alone in my house without my Old English bulldog, Neo. I can count on Neo to alert me with his fierce barking when someone comes to our door. Neo also patrols our yard and barks when cats are fighting or when raccoons are scaring our macaws.
Call to Action
In my final lectures in Tokyo, I told the veterinary students about my opinions of permanent petlessness. I told them that they, as the new generation of veterinarians, need to help their clients rethink this cultural custom. I hope many of these students will lead a national movement to buck the old system.
With my encouragement, some students decided to bring pets home from shelters for their families to bond with. I hope and pray that the new generation of Japanese veterinarians will launch this healthier win-win philosophy.
If the Japanese people, with all due respect for their deceased pet, start forming new attachments, it will help to heal the continuing undertow of pet loss that runs so deeply and sadly in their wonderful and loving society.
Alice Villalobos is a past president of the American Assn. of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians and president of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics.