A Picture Paints a Thousand Words by Martha Anderson

Over the years I have had quite a few cats, all of them dearly beloved pets. I see them still in my mind’s eye and remember each with love and affection. They were all unique, with their own distinct “personalities”. Back in the day I used the good old disposable cameras to record their antics and am very glad that I did, even though I am not a photographer, and it was more of an effort at that time before smartphones made life easier in so many ways.
Most of us, I think, it is true to say, are guaranteed to say ‘Awww’ when we see cute pictures of animals. Even the hardest of hearts will be moved (I hope) by the sight of a little fluffy kitten gazing wistfully into the lens. Many of these are from the galleries of famous photographers like Rachael Hale. It may not be easy to get our pets to pose; after all they have no ambitions to grace the cover of ‘Hello, or any other publications! They would much rather be about their own business than posing like a Top Model! We may not have her technical ability but I think it is very important indeed to snap your pets whenever possible. It ensures that we will always have something which will instantly bring us back into their presence when they have gone.
I have one lovely photograph of my cat Stevie which is very evocative. He was beautiful even at the end when this picture I am thinking of was taken by my next door neighbour. In the last week of his life he started to go into her garden and just lie in the sun in front of her patio, something we had never known him to do before. A friend who was staying with her at the time noted that he did not seem to be in great spirits and observed that he was like us humans in that he seemed to be seeking out companionship. There was a poignancy to those words which still makes me sad. I wonder if in some way he knew that he was dying and was seeking out the consolation of some kind of presence. Never the most amiable of cats he had suddenly taken to the company of strangers. It was summer and the grass was a very rich green. Stevie’s ginger coat makes a vivid contrast against it in the last photograph taken of him by one of my friend’s guest. On a lighter note when I was trying to coax him in for his ‘tea’ it was suggested to him that he might – “go home to your Mother”. This, as I was peering in an anxious manner over the adjoining wall!
There can be no doubt that pets are members of the family and ones you won’t have rows or unfortunate long-standing feuds with! Their love is unconditional and they can always be relied on never to judge us no matter what we do. When they pass on the saddest reminders can be the empty bowl in the corner or the lead dangling forlornly from the stand in the hall. There is a real sense of emptiness and loss when our pets leave us and it seems that nothing will replace that joyous welcome home. Photographs allow us not only to capture the happiness we had with them but also they emphasize the uniqueness of our pets’ personalities. By capturing those special moments we have an eternal reminder of their lives and what they meant to us. And of course they are memories which we can literally hold in our hands.
The camera in mobile phones has made huge strides in the past ten years. Not only can they take high-resolution photographs, but the images can be immediately accessed and sent out for all your friends to see via social media.
Each animal has their own individual characteristics so keep a close eye on them and be ready to record them. If your cat likes sitting in the sink, as one of mine does, this is one you will want to remember.
When taking photos of cats, good natural light is one of the most important factors. Avoid using the flash if possible, but if you have to use a flash it is advisable to take the picture at a slight angle, to avoid the dreaded red eye. If you are taking photos of your cat outside, the best time is in the first or last hour of sunlight, otherwise the light can be too harsh. If you want professional looking photos, use a backdrop that will contrast well with the cat’s coat and bring out their eye colour. While there are a few exceptions, getting down to the animal’s eye level will create more personal pet portraits. Taking photos with a camera phone is one option; a professional shoot with a real camera is another option. This may not however always capture the essence of your pet.
Whatever you opt for your photographs will help to comfort you in your grief and will forever be a reminder of the wonderful bond which you shared and which will always be with you.

How our pet helps us through our darkest days

How Pets can help us through dark days - Mental health

Getting you through: The comfort a pet can offer during dark times* – Mental Health and Pets

Written By Martha Anderson – Resident Blogger……….

Clara a woman I know lived with and took care of her invalid mother for many years and when she died, Clara was devastated and her mental health began to suffer.  A neighbour became very concerned as she feared she might be suicidal.  When she confided her fears to Clara’s cousin the cousin told her not to worry, this could never happen as Clara would not leave Rory her dog.

Sometime later Clara did say that it was Rory who helped her through the darkest days immediately after her bereavement when she had no wish to be in the house without her mother.  His presence made the place seem less empty.  Delighted to see her, he always had a welcome at the door, which helped her over her dread of returning home after she had been out shopping, or to church.  His love was unconditional but of course, he too had his needs, and this gave her a focus outside of herself. He provided a distraction and his antics would make her smile.  Watching him play brought her moments of joy at a time when she felt she might never laugh or smile again. This, of course, had also been the case when her mother was alive, but now the whole experience was different. Clara found she needed her dog in a way she had never done before.  She who had always helped and cared for him, from when he was a little puppy, found that now he was in some sense caring for her.  He had not changed but her whole life situation had.  Rory always enriched her life and suddenly he was to all intents and purposes enabling her to go on without her mother.

She was able to bestow affection on him and feeding him, even changing his litter box, were tasks that now could actually stop her thinking in a negative manner.  His daily demands became a means whereby she was almost forced to think positively and she tended to making life positive for him. Walking him in the park took on a new meaning and was even more of a welcome routine. Clara benefitted psychologically and physically from it at a time when she needed it most.  Exercise releases serotonin, the chemical which contributes to well-being and happiness.  Low serotonin levels have been linked to depression.  Her motivation was minimal as is often the case for people who are depressed but she would not deny her dog his exercise, so she forced herself to go out and to spend longer with him throwing his frisbee and ball.

It gave her a sense of purpose at a period when she felt anchorless in a world no longer inhabited by her mother, whom she had loved and cared for and who had been a friend as well as a parent. Rory needed her still and if she was not there who would care for him?  It has been proven that increased physical activity is associated with alleviating symptoms of depression and that petting an animal can actually reduce stress in humans.  Walking Rory in the neighborhood also helped her meet people at a time when social contact was more important than ever before.

Studies have indeed shown that dogs, in particular, are able to mimic the facial expressions of ‘their’ humans. This suggests that they have a capacity to empathise and can be a real comfort in times of sorrow. We often hear how actions speak louder than words; a presence or gesture can be more effective, for example, a hug. Rory provided this and more and he was also totally accepting of Clara even when she was at her lowest.  She could be in floods of tears feeling and looking in a bad way but his love for her was unconditional.  He took her at face value without expectations and lived in the moment with her, not asking questions just being ‘there’.

Clara said she had not wanted to keep going when her mother died.  While she had not ‘contemplated’ suicide as such, neither did she want to live.  Sadly there are people who in her situation have taken the decision to put an end to a misery they believe will not pass.  Having an animal in your life is not necessarily going to help prevent a person from this course of action.   However it would seem, and Clara’s story is an example, that pets can go a long way to keep us stable when the balance of our mind is disturbed.  They can make the road more than a little easier. At times when we may feel that we cannot continue on the journey, they are there by our side to give us constant affection, comfort and love; helping to dispel the darkness.

* I sought permission to tell this story and the names of my friend and her dog have been changed.

Why does the death of a pet matter to us so much?

Credit: This article was written by William Reville and first appeared in The Irish Times 

We were unprepared for the level of grief that struck us after Milo died.

Our Bichon Frise dog Milo died on June 6th. My wife and I were very much taken aback by the level of grief that Milo’s passing precipitated. Such grief is common among pet owners when their pet dies. I have looked into the psychology that underpins this phenomenon and found a very helpful article published on May 17th, 2016, by Julie Axelrod on PsychCentral, an independent mental health social network – https://psychcentral.com/lib/grieving-the-loss -of-a-pet/.

Milo was born in September 2005, so he died just short of his 12th birthday. Dogs don’t live nearly as long as humans and you can calculate equivalent human age by multiplying the dog’s age by six. Milo was therefore about 70 years old in human equivalent terms. He was very healthy throughout his life but developed a kidney tumour and went down quickly at the end. Little could be done medically and we nursed him at home in our living room. He seemed to be in no pain. We talked to him a lot and he responded, even as he grew very weak. Two days before he died he went into a deep sleep and didn’t awaken. Our vet, Dr Pat O’Doherty of Gilabbey Veterinary Hospital, helped Milo in his last days, advising us at every step of the way, which was a big comfort.

We bought Milo as a pup in 2005, shortly before the second of our two boys left to join his brother in the UK, where they have both lived since. Our household for most of the last 12 years therefore consisted of my wife, myself and Milo. We were unprepared for the grief that struck us in Milo’s last days and when he died. I think it would be helpful for all dog owners to realise from the start that they are almost certainly going to outlive their dog and that when the dog dies they will experience significant grief.

What causes us to grieve so intensely when our dog dies? Julie Axlerod explains that we are actually mourning several losses simultaneously, and I can personally endorse each one. Firstly, we mourn the loss of the unconditional love given to us by the dog. Dogs accept us totally; a feat rarely achieved by a human companion.

Secondly, we mourn the loss of a protégé. We feel responsible for another life and go to great trouble to ensure our dog’s physical and emotional wellbeing. This requires many activities, eg walking the dog, ensuring he/she meets other dogs, playing with the dog, etc. Consequently, losing a dog can feel like losing a family member.

Thirdly, we mourn the loss of a “life witness”. We act with uninhibited emotions in front of our dogs and they accompany us through the years observing both our weaknesses and our strengths. During hard times they provide us with comfort and stability.

Fourthly, we mourn many relationships and routines. When the dog dies there are no more feeding times, daily walks, throw and fetch games, etc. No more “Good boy Milo, mind the house” when going out, no more letting him out to piddle before bed time, no more combing out his hair, no more reflexive talking to him as we go about our other business, and so on.

Fifthly, we mourn the loss of a close companion. For some people the dog may be the only social companion in the world, exclusively relied on for support and love.

Axelrod cautions against forcing yourself to get over your grief quickly, pointing out that your emotional processing has no set end point and putting pressure on yourself only makes you feel worse. Talk to other pet owners who recently experienced a loss. It also helps to rehearse the story of your dog’s life – when did you get him/her, what was his personality, special memories, what will you miss most, etc. This crystallises the things that are important to remember.

Dispose of your dog’s possessions gradually but keep some special things. Perform a ritual – we buried Milo in our garden together with his two favourite toys and marked his grave with a little plaque. Allow yourself to grieve naturally. Be patient. The sad feelings will subside and you will be left with happy memories.

Goodbye Milo, we will remember you always.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of Biochemistry at UCC.

Credit: This article first appeared in The Irish Times  Updated: Thu, Jul 20, 2017, 15:14