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The importance of animal companionship

Mon 4th May 2015

Our special Friends charity
Belinda and her dog Tasha
Belinda and her dog Tasha
Tasha a very special friend
Tasha a very special friend

A new charity called Our Special Friends ( www.ourspecialfriends.org) has been set up in Suffolk to help ensure that vulnerable people can continue to benefit from the companionship of animals when they are encountering difficult times. They are there to help you if you have to make the sad decision to put your pet to sleep. They are there to help people find the right pet, walk your dog if you are unable to for some reason and they have a growing number of volunteers that will visit your home with a pet for you to meet and enjoy.

I really admire the good work they are doing and have invited Belinda Johnston, the founder of Our Special Friends to write a guest blog.

Here is her moving personal story explaining what led her to setting up such a worthwhile charity.

The benefits of animal companionship for human wellbeing are well-known. Our pets can help keep us active and give us an opportunity to 'de-stress'; they provide an outlet for our desire to nurture and care for another being and they provide unconditional love and stability in an increasingly complex world.

For many of us, pets are much loved companions but for vulnerable or isolated people, they can be a lifeline. They provide friendship, security and continuity if the relationship is appropriate, mutually beneficial and well supported.

Based on her own life experience, vet Belinda Johnston was inspired to set up Our Special Friends to help ensure that vulnerable people could continue to benefit from the companionship of animals through the most difficult of times.

Here is her moving personal story explaining what led her to setting up such an worthwhile charity.

In praise of Tasha and other beloved companion animals:

‘Mongrel pup wanting good home’ was the advert that caught my eye. I was in my second year at university studying veterinary medicine and that weekend’s rash decision proved to be pivotal in my life. Without any research and without any forward planning (which is definitely not to be recommended) I went off and retrieved ‘mongrel pup’ who I named ‘Tasha’ and who was with me from that point in time until three weeks after the birth of our first daughter. I had no concept of the amount of help that I needed for our relationship to continue over the years that we were together and I had no idea just how supportive and precious her relationship with me would be. Tasha was my anchor in turbulent storms and a constant friendship for 13 years that kept me sane.

Through bereavement and uncertainty she enabled me to engage with the communities and people around me, Tasha did more for me than my parents ever could, at least that is what I have come to realise. My mother had died when she was 37 years old and I was 10 and pets were an important part of my upbringing. Sadly my father took his own life the year before I qualified as a vet and so bereavement was an early life experience for me and animal friends helped me to cope.

Grief is a very lonely place as you can be in a crowded environment and yet feel isolated and alone. The companionship of animals when it is appropriate, well matched, well supported and mutually beneficial has benefits to both people and pets that can be difficult to describe. There is evidence and research to show us the many health and social benefits but many of the benefit s are intangible.

My first essential support came from my landlady, Sandy, a great friend who thankfully and immediately agreed to have a pet on the premises! It is rare to have positive pet policies in housing; something that has to be addressed nationally. Family, friends and complete strangers enabled me to continue to have Tasha by providing us with practical and emotional support, and my veterinary colleagues were there for us when she fractured her pelvis in an accident and when she had cancer at the end.

Other people do not have the same varied support or network and this is why our new charity ‘Our Special Friends’ (www.ourspecialfriends.org) exists . It is providing integrated community care for vulnerable human- companion animal relationships and I am striving to develop our collaborative approach in Suffolk. By creating sustainability, we can support people and their cherished pets, enhancing the wellbeing of both, even through difficult decisions.

Euthanasia or relinquishing a beloved animal is one of the most difficult decisions we ever have to make. The consequential losses are many and we then face them on our own, without the friend that has been by our side. There is help out there and I want people to be able to access that help. Your veterinary clinic and your GP, family and friends will be people you can turn to and there is also the Pet Bereavement Support Service http://www.bluecross.org.uk/1742/pet-loss.html, the Ralph Site http://www.theralphsite.com/ amongst others.