Learning Compassion Through Animals
The decision to adopt a pet is a big one, and should be taken with a great deal of thought about the responsibility involved and the care that has to be provided. The upside is that not only adults but children too learn a lot from caring for a pet. In our latest blog post, Jeddah Blog’s animal lover and Founder of Pets in Need Sonja Svensek discusses the ways in which adopting a pet positively affects the lives of their owners.
What it takes to have a big heart
Two years ago a medium sized Maltese mix was brought to us by a group of workers who had found him and were unable to keep him. Word got round quickly that we are animal lovers and would never refuse an animal in need, so it was common that we were either brought unwanted pets to us or others dumped outside our home. People have always asked me what it takes to have ‘big heart’ to help animals. I never quite understood the question since it’s a natural instinct for me and many other animal lovers to do whatever we can to help a pet in need. “You are a compassionate person!”, they’d say. However people might not realize that compassion can be taught and inspired onto others. The more we instill this in our household especially around younger children, the more they grow up to be more in tune and connected to other beings.
Children and pets
Studies have shown that having a pet at home decreases depression, increases feelings of joy and a sense of well-being. A pet teaches us a lot in relation to responsibility and how someone else’s needs can be fulfilled. A pet also shows us that they have feelings too, they cry, they feel pain and they can feel happy too. It doesn’t become just about ‘us’ but also another beings life that is dependent on us. Children learn what it means to care for a pet, by feeding it, playing with it and caring for it. They start to learn what makes the pet happy and slowly understand that certain behaviors trigger certain actions. There are also many health benefits linked to owning a pet. A study in the Journal of Pediatrics shows that children who had a dog during the first year of their life had higher immune response, with 31% fewer respiratory tract infections than those without.
Children with autism, other spectrum disorders or ADHD can experience lowered blood pressure and better cognitive and communication gains when able to participate in therapy dog programs.
Pets and Disabilities
More help centers in Saudi Arabia are introducing animals in their healing programs with children as children respond quicker and show more progress when there is a animal involved in their learning process.
A family I know adopted a disabled dog to teach their children that disabilities are not to be feared, judged or criticized. The children both under the age of 12, bonded with their dog so well that the parents have noticed a change in their view towards other people. These will be children growing up with a better understanding of how we might all be different, but that we are equal.
Though more and more research suggests that animals instill compassion and connection in children, it is important to note that pets should never be bought as a gift for anyone, and should be thoroughly discussed with the person or family in question beforehand. Sadly on the other side of the spectrum, there are also parents who buy a kitten for their child where the child treats the kitty as a toy and instead of learning about responsibilities of caring for him/her, they gain feelings of power and strength over another helpless being. This is where animal abuse and neglect can start-that there aren’t any responsible adults to guide and support the proper caring and nurturing of pets at home.
If you are considering adopting a pet, all family members need to be involved in the decision process to better prepare and understand what each one can do to help and what each will be responsible for. There is no denying that owning a pet is one of the most rewarding things in life but it does take genuine good willed effort. I personally don’t like the term ‘owning a pet’ since they are not objects nor property we can use, so it’s helpful to change our outlook that instead of owning a pet, we choose to care for a pet.
Pets in schools
According to the Tolerance Project website, it’s not only through pets at home that compassion can be taught. Schools should introduce children to pets as part of the curriculum. Children learn about race, how different coloured cats don’t make them any different than another coloured cat and so on. They also learn to develop their curiosity, by learning about pets eating habits, the environment they live in, the care that’s is required and so on.
It is no surprise then that some schools even have their own school ‘pets’ commonly guinea pigs or hamsters in the classroom where the children take it in turns to handle the animal, as well as change its water and give it food. When I was a child our class had a hamster. Over time, we learnt how to trust the pet and being trusted in return, and were allowed to take the hamster home for the weekend. I felt such a sense of pride and responsibility knowing that I was chosen to take the class hamster home for the weekend that I couldn’t sleep; waking up every few hours to check that he was alight.
That sense of purpose instilled in me affected me in a beautiful way that few months later upon insisting to my parents that I wanted a hamster of my own, I got one. Gizmo was my first pet and I loved nothing more than playing with him and being with him whenever possible. I also got used to the tough side of things, the parts most children and some adults alike find tedious, though very necessary; like the part that involves cleaning its cage, and changing the water and so on but over time I learnt about cause and effect, responsibility and the fact that this live and breathing creature was relying completely on me.
Having a pet as a child also taught me about detachment; that even though I gained a best friend in my pet, I didn’t own him, and that one-day he too would pass away. It was a difficult time when my furry friend passed away, but I was blessed to have had the year that I did with him. The pain never gets easier when another pet dies, but I have been able to deal with the situation more realistically in my adult years thanks to the very first pet I had when I was a child.
There is still a stigma attached to having a pet at home, but it’s positive to see this slowly changing in this society. Owning a pet is a big, and sometimes a costly, responsibility. A pet should always be treated as part of your family and not just for when it’s convenient, cute or small.
While not every child who is cruel to a pet grows up to be a criminal, there is a strong correlation between cruel behavior toward animals and lack of empathy for human beings
Learning Compassion in Adulthood
Even if a household doesn’t consist of children, it is never too late to learn compassion in adulthood. Psychology reviews state that it is possible to change our mindset and learn to care and feel empathy for others even in later years. Just like we can train people to hurt, injure or abuse an animal, we can turn this around to train them how to be more caring. But learning about suffering is not enough. It’s important that children and adults alike, talk about their feelings and understand what they are feeling to better understand feelings of others.
It is far more complex and very different from individual to individual as to why they abuse animals, but the notion that it can be stopped and at times even trigger guilt and remorse in them is possible. According to the American library Association article entitled ‘Be kind to Animals’, it is more beneficial to start inspiring and teaching the young in being kind to animals, because ..”By the time they exhibit cruel behavior toward animals it is often very difficult to change that behavior, making it essential that adults in every part of the community help children learn to treat animals with kindness. While not every child who is cruel to a pet grows up to be a criminal, there is a strong correlation between cruel behavior toward animals and lack of empathy for human beings.”
Compassion starts at home, and animals should not be used as punching bag or experiment tool for this. Education, love in action and getting children as well as adults involved in the process of caring, rescuing and helping animals can grow more compassionate beings.
Selflessness, Gratitude and Appreciation
The more we, as a collective society teach our children, our neighbours and perhaps our elders too, that animals have a soul, feel pain and should not be treated as ‘things’, the more we will have a better understanding of ourselves and each other including the environment we live in. This brings forth gratitude, the appreciation of helping a helpless being at the mercy of your hands, the gratitude in knowing that this is not being done for any monetary, status or ego driven rewards, but rather much deeper and bigger more meaningful act of kindness, which can inspires compassion in other too.