Humans fall far short in the friend category compared to pets. That's a good thing, because it reminds us how far we still have to go to become enlightened, comforting creatures.
Most people think of cats and dogs when it comes to pets but just about any animal can be a pet. My definition of a pet is an animal that could fend for itself in the wild in its natural state but has been forced, either by accident or evolution, to become dependent upon humans for survival.
Pets range from reptiles to insects. I was reminded of the variety of pets by a patient I saw when I was working as a home health nurse. The man had a gaping belly wound that needed to be dressed every day and every time a nurse showed up his pet rabbit would dash out from somewhere and run across this man's belly as if to let the nurses know that he was watching out for this friend of his.
Despite the lack of sterility, I believe the man survived his wound healing ordeal without complications. I suspect the rabbit played a large part in the wound healing process, something not likely to be written up in any journals.
One way to look at pets is to consider them some sort of human slaves. In many respects they are, but this is where humans have the potential to understand one of the biggest differences between humans and animals. Even though animals may serve humans in some ways while also being dependent upon humans, they somehow manage not to let that turn them into inferior creatures, something most of us have yet to learn from them.
Some of the reasons for the comfort of pets are obvious, especially when it comes to cats and dogs. They spend more time with us than most people and they are not afraid to engage with us when we are sad or feeling like we want the world to go away.
I consider myself a cat person, although we had a dog for a short time. Curtis was a mutt that we adopted from a friend and during the short eight months he lived with us I developed a bond with him that was closer than bonds I have developed with most humans.
That kind of bond is hard to explain because it makes you feel guilty that you have developed more empathy for a dog than you have for a relative or a close friend. I have lost a lot of pets over the years but the death of Curtis hit me harder than the death of family members, with the exception of my wife.
This is where the guilt comes in. When I had to carry Curtis to the vet's to have him put to sleep I was crying all the way. As they gave him the injection, he turned his head and looked at me as if to say, "How could you do this to me," or "Thank you for ending my misery." I couldn't be sure what message that look was sending, but I do know that they nearly had to carry me out of the vet's office after he took his last gasping breath.
After Curtis' death, I realized that I had not grieved as much when my father died, shedding only a few tears. At first I felt guilt, but then I came to realize (rationalize) that pet grief is different than human grief and that comparing the two may not be possible.
All of these ramblings lead me to the conclusion that having pets improves the quality of the lives of humans. Sure there are people who have the ability to offer unconditional love and friendship, but it is not the same as the unconditional love and friendship of a cat, dog, rabbit or a parrot.
The next time that the troubles of the world seem just too much to bear, stop for a few minutes and lie down with your cat or dog and stroke them for five or ten minutes. All of the drugs in the world will not give you what those few minutes have to offer.
Richard Davis is a registered nurse and long-time health care advocate. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.