Tens of thousands of Americans rely on the steadfast companionship of a service or therapy animal. For some, the animal offers a means to mobility and independence. While for others, the highly-trained pets provide a reassuring presence, increase positive social interactions and offer nonjudgmental support and comfort. For most, the partnership comes with the knowledge that they will outlive their animal companion.
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as a dog (or miniature horse) who has been trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Tasks can include: guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications and calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack among other duties. Those who solely provide comfort or emotional support are considered therapy animals.
Long-term Bonds Build Strong Relationships
Most service dogs are partnered with "their people" by the age of two, and can spend up to the next decade by their side. In addition to helping its handler bridge a variety of physical barriers, research has shown that service animals have significant emotional benefits. An animal can stimulate the production of mood-enhancing chemicals in the body, which can even provide relief from physical pain. When this partnership is severed by death, the handler may experience intense grief as well as depression caused by the loss of physical and/or emotional independence.
Prioritizing Your Mental Health
If you have personally lost a service or therapy animal, their death can cause stress which may deplete your energy and emotional reserves. It is important that you continue to eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep and exercise regularly to boost your mood. You may develop severe depression. If you seem to be coping worse over time rather than better, you should seek professional help. If it has been more than two months since the death, the following are considered warning signs for clinical depression:
• Difficulty functioning in daily life
• Extreme focus on the death
• Excessive bitterness, anger or guilt
• Neglecting personal hygiene
• Alcohol or drug abuse
• Inability to enjoy life
• Withdrawing from others
• Constant feelings of hopelessness
• Talking about dying or suicide
Necessity and the Healing Process
Replacing a therapy animal, although a necessity, may often be accompanied by guilt. The process itself can take a significant amount of time. As each new service animal is presented as an option, you may find yourself comparing it to the animal you lost. It is often recommended that the next service animal not look the same or be of the same breed, so that it is not seen as a replacement but rather, a new beginning.
Those who have experienced the loss of a therapy or service animal often echo the same sentiments. The best thing your friends and family members can do is be there for you in your time of need. Although you may require some additional physical assistance, more than anything it is important to share your feelings with someone without the threat of being judged. Some may say, "It was only a dog." However, for those who rely on a service or therapy animal, he or she was a medical aid, a friend and so much more.