MADISON, Ind. (UMNS) - Support groups for those grieving after the loss of a loved one, or caring for an ailing family member, are not unusual.

But recognizing the strong bond between people and their pets, members of North United Methodist Church in Madison go a step further, reaching out to those dealing with the illness or death of four-legged friends.

"They need somebody to talk to," says Bob Schultz, a church volunteer who started the Pet Caretakers' Ministry. "They're coming in and they want prayer for their pets. And they want prayer for themselves, taking care of them. "

Schultz and his wife, Karen, have an 11-year-old boxer, Scooby, who has cancer.

"Scooby's been a very close friend, and he's always been with me," says Karen Schultz. "And I just was finding it hard to imagine life without him."

Karen Schultz, a retired nurse, considers her pets members of the family. A recent addition at her home is a 6-month-old dog, Abbie, who was abandoned and taken to a vet clinic for treatment of an injured leg.
"They do give us that unconditional love," she says. ". I can remember losing my cat, and it was just like somebody had ripped a part of me apart."

Bob Schultz came up with the idea for the ministry after seeing an upset pet owner at a local veterinary clinic.

"This young man was crying and so we were sitting there talking and said a little prayer," he says. "And they just didn't expect for his dog to live."

Soon after that meeting, the Pet Caretakers' Ministry was launched, meeting once a month at the church. North United Methodist also has expanded its 24-hour prayer line 812-493-4487 to include prayers for pets and their owners.

"Sometimes we fail to be sensitive, I think, to individuals who are very, very, very attached to their pets and then they lose one of their pets," says the Rev. Randy Jungkurth, pastor of the 140-member congregation. "And then that ends up being even as much grief as a person who loses a family member."

Jungkurth welcomed the idea of the Pet Caretakers' Ministry, which began as a community outreach in September 2007.

Bob Schultz is hoping the idea of a support-group for pet owners will spread. He sees the love of animals as a "special blessing"-and a two-way street.

"We think we're taking care of the pets," he says. "But in reality, the pets are taking care of us."

John Gordon serves as a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.