In a recent editorial, “Our View: Dogs shouldn’t get their day in court” (May 16, Page A6), the Editorial Board writes: “Pets may seem like family, but they’re property – which is how courts should rule.” Research on the human-animal bond indicates pets are considered family, and the connection equals or exceeds that experienced between humans.

According to the American Pet Products Association, 68 percent of American households have companion animals, 86 percent of households with companion animals consider pets family and overall spending in the U.S. pet industry was $69.4 billion in 2017. Pet companionship can be an essential part of a human’s healthy lifestyle, physically and mentally, often providing social support and stress reduction. Characteristics used to describe this relationship include love, comfort and protection – also associated with human family members.

Research shows the loss of a pet can be as or more difficult than the loss of a human. The decision to euthanize a pet results in feelings of guilt and a deep sense of loss once the pet is gone. The loss of a pet can be misunderstood, minimized and ridiculed: “It’s just a dog/cat” or “You can get another one.” This is called “disenfranchised grief,” an unrecognized grief that lacks support and compassion. The love for a pet brings a matched loss, which explains the growing number of in-person and online pet loss support groups.

Another overlooked aspect of the human-animal bond is the compassion fatigue experienced by veterinary and animal support providers. Veterinarians die by suicide at twice the rate of other health care providers. The frequency of euthanizing patients while supporting the pet’s human family is stressful. As a result of increasing research on compassion fatigue by veterinary providers, self-care strategies and support systems have been developed, including teaching resilience techniques to veterinary students, practicing veterinarians, veterinary technicians and others engaged in animal care. There is a long way to go to; however, the conversation and research are finally underway.

Two years ago, my beloved golden retriever Pepsi died from hemangiosarcoma, an aggressive blood cancer. She lived six weeks. I took her everywhere until she was too weak, slept on the floor with her, rushed to the emergency clinic in the middle of the night and ultimately put her to sleep as my final act of love.

The day she was diagnosed, I started writing a blog to deal with my distress (pepsidiaries.blogspot.com/). Pepsi’s death taught me to be more courageous and that not getting something isn’t the worst thing that can happen. The list of things that can take me down became shorter, and I am more present and take less for granted. Psychologist Julie Axelrod states that the loss of a dog is painful because it is a loss of unconditional love and special companionship that offers security and comfort. As my veterinary oncologist said, “No one says, ‘You can get another dad.’ ”

My grief for Pepsi led me to teach a course in veterinary social work at the University of Southern Maine. I read the available research on the four pillars of veterinary social work: pet bereavement, compassion fatigue, animal-assisted therapy and violence and oppression against animals. While my initial lens was bereavement and compassion fatigue, the foundation of this work is the human-animal bond. My students and I discovered the importance of the human-animal bond in social work practice beyond veterinary settings. The magnitude of this relationship is evident in people refusing to leave during a natural disaster or deciding to stay in an abusive relationship or sleep on the street rather than a shelter because they cannot bring their pet.

The importance and knowledge of the human-animal bond needs to be integrated into all human service work, including first responders. There is an overlap between child and animal welfare in terms of protective and predictive factors. Legislators need to get up to speed so the courts can respond to the significance of this relationship. This is not a philosophical debate about consciousness or deer suing for a shorter hunting season. It is about an empirically supported human reality that has deep meaning and purpose. It is about connectedness, joy and reciprocity. It is about the capacity of love.