Case Study: Working Clinically With Clients & Their Pets

*In efforts to protect client anonymity, names in the case examples included in this article have been redacted and the shared content is purposely not credited to the contributing clinical social worker.

Client: “Losing my cat was like losing a family member.”

In a recent session, a client described the debilitating grief she experienced after the loss of her pet: “it’s been two weeks, but I still cry every day and it’s a struggle just to get out of bed in the morning. I know this sounds ridiculous, but losing my cat was like losing a family member. She was like a child to me, and my best friend. And now that she’s gone, the house feels so empty. My life feels empty without her in it.”

While this might seem to be, as the client characterizes it, a “ridiculous” response to the loss of an animal, it exemplifies the significant role that pets play in our lives. Pets mean a lot to us – we spend many years living with them, caring for them, giving them love and affection and receiving their love and affection in return. We choose to adopt them because they bring tremendous joy and pleasure to our lives on a daily basis. They depend on us for their well-being, and when something is amiss with them, it affects us.

Recognizing That Pets Are a Significant Relationship

Given all this, it might come as a surprise that few intake or assessment forms include questions about pets. Clinical training, whether university courses or advanced skills programs, also tends to neglect information about clients’ relationships to their pets. The important role that pets play in our clients’ lives is too often ignored or forgotten. There are a number of important client relationships, with both people and systems, that therapists know to ask about when gathering a client’s life history or preparing a biopsychosocial assessment, and pets should be included in those questions. A failure to ask about a client’s pets could signify a grave loss of valuable information pertinent to the client’s daily life and current functioning.

There are a number of important client relationships, with both people and systems, that therapists know to ask about when gathering a client’s life history or preparing a biopsychosocial assessment, and pets should be included in those questions.

Pets in Clinical Conversation

Asking a client about her/his pets may open up new avenues of conversation and insight that would otherwise be missed. In addition to the client mentioned above, I have talked with several other clients about the pets in their lives, and through our discussion of their pet, came to new understandings about the client.

One couple shared the story of witnessing their dog get hit by a car on a road trip. In addition to suffering the loss of their pet, the couple shared in a traumatic experience that caused intrusive negative thoughts when they traveled in a car with their new dog. Learning about this experience allowed me to recognize the traumatic nature of the event they witnessed, and talking about it together in session helped to re-establish safety and stability in their lives with their new pet.

Another client, when asked about his pets, shared that something strange had been going on with his cat lately. The cat stayed up all night crying, as if in pain. This not only caused the client great distress as he frantically attempted to pacify his cat, it resulted in a significant loss of sleep for the client, which impacted his daily functioning and overall mental health. “I feel like I’m going crazy trying to figure out what is wrong with my cat,” he told me, “and I don’t talk about it much, but I find myself thinking about it all the time.” Recognizing the deleterious effects this situation was having on the client, together, we made a plan for the cat to be thoroughly evaluated by a veterinarian, giving the client a sense of control over and support in a seemingly hopeless situation.

A final example of the importance of talking about pets with our clients shows the impact pets can have on physical health and relationships. A female client, who I knew had two cats and a dog, was in a new relationship that was getting serious. However, her new partner was allergic to cats, and this caused some stress in their relationship. He had to take allergy medicine and use an inhaler whenever he came to her house, and it was difficult for her to spend a great deal of time at his house because she had to be home to take care of her pets. She began to feel that the relationship was doomed, and that she never should have started dating someone who was allergic to cats. While we were powerless to change her partner’s severe allergies, talking about this in therapy allowed the client to process her emotions and re-evaluate her priorities. It also gave me, as a therapist, important insight into her new relationship.

Positive Life Impacts of Pets

For the most part, pets impact our lives positively. They make us laugh, they are constant companions, and they shower us with unfettered love and attention. It is no wonder that pets have been recognized as important sources of emotional support. Animal-human bonds have been important features of social life for centuries. Because of these deep bonds and how much we care about the pets in our lives, they can also influence our mental health, socio-emotional well-being, and even physical state.

Pets also help to structure our lives, as we go on daily walks with a dog, or have a morning cuddle session with a cat. Pets are not only a significant part of our daily routines, they are a part of our socio-emotional environment. Clients’ relationships with their pets are often some of the most important and present in their lives. Asking about the role that pets play in a client’s life is vital to understanding the client’s life history and biopsychosocial functioning.