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The gift of a loyal pet

By Rose McCormick Brandon

When my daughter Melody was 5, she prayed every day for a cat. So I found a breeder and made plans for her to choose a proper kitten. Before our appointment day arrived, a stray orange tabby showed up on our back deck, scraggly and scarred like a street fighter. Melody welcomed him as a gift from heaven, called him Debbie and moved him into our home. He never overcame his prowling ways but he bonded with our family and became the first of several pets.

Since the day God gave Adam the joyful task of naming animals, people have bonded with them. Dogs and cats are favored as pets, but horses, birds, reptiles, fish and assorted farm animals also connect with people. Ants don’t rate high on the scale of preferred pets but they have admirers too. Imprisoned during the Second World War, Corrie ten Boom wrote, “Into my solitary cell came a small busy black ant. When I realized the honor being done me, I crouched down and admired the marvelous design of legs and body. … It was the beginning of a relationship.”

Veterinarian Mike Hord of Val Verde Animal Hospital in Lavista, Neb., says, “God has given us a directive to care for animals, but their value in our lives goes far beyond that. Studies are proving that relationships with animals are good for your health.” One study at the State University of New York, Buffalo, showed decreased blood pressure readings in patients who adopted a pet.

Hord, a graduate of Evangel University and member of Glad Tidings Assembly of God in Omaha, Neb., believes everyone benefits from interaction with animals but says it’s most evident with the elderly.

Linda Henson, activities assistant at Maranatha Village retirement community in Springfield, Mo., says, “Eyes light up when the pets arrive. Some, who might not talk to people, talk to the animals, and I notice residents are calmer and happier after a pet visit.” According to Henson, the reason is simple. “There’s no need to prove yourself with animals. They accept you the way you are.”

Whatever your choice in pets — furry, scaly or feathery — their friendship may be linked to better mental health. Janice Lewis tells how working with animals helped her son, David, after he quit university and returned home in a depressed state. “An opportunity opened for him to work at the local shelter. David poured his heart into caring for lost, sick and abandoned animals, and it was healing for him,” Lewis says. A year later, David returned to school and graduated.

Dr. H. Norman Wright, author of A Friend Like No Other, says, “An animal wants to connect with you regardless of your circumstances. They don’t talk back, criticize or give orders.”

This quality in animals produces many “God moments” for pet therapist Ramona Furst as she and her dog minister to psychiatric and palliative care patients in North Bay, Ontario.

“One day I watched in horror as my usually well-behaved Libby lifted her front legs and chest up and onto the bed of an older woman,” Furst says. “Tears trickled down as her crippled fingers nuzzled in the dog’s hair. Seeing this, the woman’s daughter said, ‘Mom hasn’t been able to show emotion for over a year due to a stroke. I had lost hope.’”

From pets, children learn important life lessons like responsibility and compassion. When our English bull terrier, Daisy, gave birth to seven, our three children adjusted their schedules and shared the workload. Eight weeks later, when the pups left for adoptive homes, the kids shed tears but also felt relieved to wave goodbye to an all-consuming project.

A parade of pets has blessed our home — some blessed us more than others — but each one has needed care. That means investing time and money. They repay us by becoming confidantes, allies and playmates for the kids and adding a lot of personality to the family.

Statistics prove pets are valued family members. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, pet owners across the nation spent an estimated $43 billion in 2007 on food, vet care, medicine and assorted services — almost double what was spent 10 years ago. Some pamper pets with Christmas presents and birthday parties, take them to weddings and include them in family photos. A growing number of pets end up with funerals and burial plots fit for humans, which brings us to what we fear most about building close ties to animals — their loss.

When our brawler, Debbie, died, Melody needed two days off school to recover. Her 13-year-old friends came by to offer condolences. She cried when they said, “We’re sorry your cat died. The whole neighborhood will miss him.”

My husband dug and marked a grave in the backyard to acknowledge our affection for a tomcat that insisted on becoming part of our family. Assorted hamsters, an iguana, fish and a beloved dog have followed Debbie to our private pet cemetery.

Melody thought she’d never love another cat. I waited a month, and then took her to visit two elderly spinster sisters who fostered strays in their century-old house. From the approximately 20 cats that had the run of their place, another orange stole Melody’s heart. Some experience longer grief periods than others after pet loss, but people do recover and invite other animal friends into their lives.

Randy Alcorn, author of the recent book Heaven, says, “Animals aren’t nearly as valuable as people. But God is their Maker and through them He’s touched many lives.” Letting an animal touch our lives can be a healthy and positive experience. Most pet lovers agree that losing a pet is not as sad as never having one.

“We have a lot yet to learn from animals,” says Hord. He cites recent study results showing animals can detect the onset of death and be alert to some early-stage cancers. “But what’s most important is that we, as Christians, respect them, care for them and enjoy them because they contribute a lot to the quality of our lives.”

ROSE McCORMICK BRANDON writes from her home in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, where she lives with husband Doug.

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