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When Clients Talk to Me About Their Dogs and Cats

Companion animals occupy a big part of many of my clients’ lives, so it is not surprising that they talk about them in therapy. As an ethical vegan therapist, however, sometimes I hear things about their animals that stir in me feelings that make it hard for me to fully attend to what the client might be experiencing.

For example, a woman I work with who bought a puppy last fall described a moment of frustration that saddened me. Working furiously on a paper for graduate school one evening, she did not have time to play with her rambunctious puppy. She asked her boyfriend to entertain the pup, but he was absorbed by his phone, so my client shut the poor dog in his crate. Imprisoned and ignored simply for wanting to play, the dog had become, for the evening at least, little more than furniture or an unwanted plaything. I did not think it would be helpful or therapeutic to share with my client my sadness. In retrospect, however, I wish I had been able to consider the possibility that my reaction was a clue to something important the client might have been trying to tell me about what she experienced in the situation.

I understand that relatively few people—including my clients—view and treat animals with the same level of seriousness and respect as I do. Nevertheless, I was encouraged recently when one client, whom I’ll call Ned, took a hard, introspective look at the way he has treated animals over the past three decades—from the rabbit adopted on a whim in college to the puppy he and his wife picked out shortly after their honeymoon.

Ned expressed mixed feelings about the fact that he and his wife had just signed a lease on a new rental home where dogs are not allowed. They had decided, after six years of loyalty, to “re-home” their dog because keeping her was no longer convenient. I was heartbroken for the animal. When Ned first told me about his and his wife’s decision, I silently asked myself whether his parents could take temporary guardianship. As if reading my mind, he said that his parents had offered the dog a home, but Ned believed that the dog would be better off going to a “forever” home than having to go to his parents’ for a year or so and then perhaps having to move again.

Without going into detail, Ned confessed being less than proud about the way he had treated this dog over the years. With no real information to go on, I imagined benign neglect—perhaps leaving her alone and forcing her to wait overlong for food, water, or to relieve herself. I couldn’t help wondering if Ned was telling himself that the dog would be better off in her new home, where she would have a canine companion, in order to allay his guilt. Had his parents kept the dog until he and his family could have taken her back, the reminder of his past ill treatment of her would have stayed present in his life.

It isn’t wrong to get rid of something that’s associated with painful memories or uncomfortable emotions, but getting rid of someone who reminds you of your less-than-best self—especially if that someone relies on you–is more complicated.

On the other hand, did my resistance to the idea that the dog could be better off with a new family indicate a stubborn attachment to the notion that Ned was committing an egregious act against the dog? Was I as stubbornly committed to an erroneous belief about what was in the dog’s best interest as I believed my client, who has spent the last six years with the dog, to be?

My heart was breaking as my client described his predicament—breaking for the dog who was being discarded and who would never understand why, and breaking for Ned, who was clearly struggling with the decision he and his spouse had made. Honestly, I was also disappointed that someone I like and respect so much could do something so cruel. I tried to relieve my own sadness in part by remembering that, on the scale of acts of animal cruelty, pushing a dog off to what appears to be a good new home is one of the less heinous crimes one could commit. Nevertheless, that does not make it right.

As a therapist, I give clients the opportunity to explore their feelings, not tell them what I think they should do. In that moment with Ned, I had to be his therapist, not an animal rights advocate. Sometimes, especially in a world where animals over and over again receive only the merest consideration, it’s hard to be both.

When Clients Talk to Me About Their Dogs and Cats

Christine Jackson, LICSW

Christine Jackson has been a therapist for fifteen years and maintains a private practice in Washington, D.C. She has been an animal advocate for over four decades.

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APA Reference
Jackson, C. (2020). When Clients Talk to Me About Their Dogs and Cats. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 31 May 2020
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