Pets are like Family

“No more pets. They steal your heart and then they break it.”

Beneath a tough and hardened exterior was a big ole’ softie.  There I sat, one hot afternoon in April, across from my colleague as he recounted his days with his first dog, Rockie.

Rockie, a Jack Russell terrier, had been my colleague’s companion for a good 16 years and had seen him through his biggest milestones: from when he was a single, young man, to when he got married and subsequently when he became the father to two children. He recalls Rockie to be fiercely loyal, and he can still remember (to the day!) how old Rockie was when she passed. Rockie was well-loved — she lived a life long beyond her expectancy and her family celebrated her birthday every year, complete with doggy treats and hugs.

A Jack Russell terrier with a birthday cake on the left and a boy and a girl holding a Corgi dog on the right.
Rockie The First (left) and Rockie The Second (right). Rockie The First was my colleague’s most faithful companion. Image source: Karun S’ Baram

There is no denying that pet owners form incredibly strong emotional connections with their pets.  Once this connection is severed in the form of the pet dying, the owner becomes inconsolable, as one would if a close family member had passed.

What the Critics Think

“I don’t think a pet can be considered family, and compassionate leave for pets…I just don’t see why [it should be extended to animals],” an ex-work colleague once said to me. He is not alone in thinking this:  39% of respondents in a 2022 US study  thought pet bereavement leave was unnecessary.

Companies fear their workers abusing pet bereavement leave or worse, lobbying for more pet owner “rights” like “pawternity leave” — a type of leave extended to people who have newly become pet owners and need time to care for their pet, settle them down in their new environment and play with them. Employers think, “If I allow this, what next?”

Compassionate leave is only extended to immediate family members including a spouse, child and/or parent.  Since we cannot change state-accepted company policies, what can we do?

A dog
Precious Bisket, who was loved by my colleague with her whole heart. Image source: Stacey Nonis

Step 1: Empathise

Assuming you’re not a pet owner or an animal lover, the first step to showing kindness is to empathise. When you put yourself in another’s shoes and take their perspective, you understand why they feel a certain way.

If you’re someone’s boss, or colleagues with someone whose pet has just passed on, try to imagine this and how you’d react. You wouldn’t be able to eat or sleep with the heartache you feel. The grief that pet owners experience from the loss of a pet shouldn’t be taken any less seriously than if they’ve lost their own family member.

Two cats
On a brighter note, enjoy pictures of my colleagues’ current pets. Look at those airplane ears of Cocoa’s (left)! Her sister, Cino (right), looks adorable in that red bow, though. Image credits: Katelin Teo

Step 2: Realise

Besides empathising with them, you could also take on some of your colleague’s work, be understanding about why they cannot make certain timelines, be sensitive in your words and actions and generally look out for them in the workplace. If the roles were reversed, I’m sure you would want to be treated with as much compassion.

A dog wearing bunny ears.
Meet my colleague’s playful dog, Dong Dong! Image source: Wong Si Ning

Step 3: Re-energise

Personally, after I’ve experienced an ordeal, I prefer to keep myself occupied. Invite your colleague out for a run, or something fun, like an art jam session. Keeping active helps your body produce endorphins or “happy chemicals” and creating art is a good way to express oneself, helping them process their emotions. I’m sure the invitation, this burst of energy, would be more than welcome.

A gerbil being held with gloves
This is Timothy, a spunky gerbil.  Image source: Stacey Nonis

Kindness Begets Kindness

I’m not going to tell you to choose kindness, because you’ve heard it so many times. I feel we should be kind where we can, because that’s what our purpose on Earth is. If you don’t see it this way, I’m sure you’ll agree with “doing unto others what you would want to be done onto you”.  In this way, kindness always begets kindness. I believe that we can always be greater than we are. Do you?

A dog wearing purple-tinted sunglasses
The goofy Ollie. Image source: Rachel Lum