People often talk about how their pets provide them with companionship, acceptance, and love. But they are capable of teaching us much more than that. This is what my German shepherd Cora taught me about loneliness.
When Cora moved in with me, I was already living with Sherlock and Mycroft, cats from the same litter that I had adopted years before. While the dog was intensely interested in the cats, the cats were not interested in her. There was a long adjustment period as Cora learned to keep her distance and the cats learned to tolerate her.
Five years later, I lost both cats to cancer. Mycroft died in the fall, Sherlock in the spring. When Sherlock died, Cora changed. She was listless. She didn’t do a big happy dance to greet me when I came home. She lay around the house and showed less interest in walks and toys than she had. I finally realized she was mourning for the cat.
This astonished me, because the cats and the dog had never been friendly. They shared the same living space, but they didn’t sleep together or play together. They were like planets in the same solar system, moving through adjacent space, but having no obvious interactions with one another. And yet, it was clear that Cora was depressed after the second cat’s death. She missed him, even though he had only been sharing space with her. Just having the cats around had kept her from feeling lonely.
While I was surprised, I didn’t learn from this like I might have. I didn’t understand when other people complained about loneliness. After my divorce, I lived alone for a decade, and while there were times I binge-watched Pride and Prejudice and felt sorry for myself, I was mostly content to live by myself. I looked forward to my time alone.
By the time Cora died, I was married again. While my husband was at work, it was just me rattling around in our empty house. Initially, I treated the vacant space and silence that used to be filled with Cora and her thumping tail as an adjustment. Things had changed; of course I was noticing the vacuum in my life.
With time, I got used to it, but the empty feeling didn’t go away. It was months before I realized that I was lonely. That’s when I got it. This is what my friends were talking about, this pain that went with being by yourself. I hadn’t ever felt it like this before, but I finally understood.
All those years I lived by myself, when I’d prided myself on my strength because I hadn’t felt lonely, I hadn’t actually been alone. I was surrounded by pets. I started with two cats, then got a German shepherd. Over the years, there were also guinea pigs, mice, and zebra finches. I always had at least one animal in the house, usually more.
Just as having the cats around gave Cora a sense of community, having pets in the house helped me to feel part of something. Animals are not people; they can’t converse or care for us in the same way another human can. But they can give us a sense of belonging and comfort that keeps the bitter cold of loneliness from causing us pain.
I’m grateful to Cora for teaching me this lesson, even though it’s a painful one. Now, when a friend tells me she feels lonely, I listen with empathy and compassion. Thanks to my dog, I can be a better friend.
What have your pets taught you?