IS the death of a pet any less of a bereavement than losing a family member?

The controversial issue of taking leave to grieve for a deceased pet, or care for a sick one, has been raised following a recent landmark case in Italy. A woman living in Rome managed to win a battle to be granted sick pay for two days she took off work to look after her ill dog.

The headline-making case has prompted heated debate on whether pet-owners should expect sick pay to look after their animal, or the kind of leave that parents are allowed to take care of a child.

Inevitably, it’s a thorny issue - especially since some workers don’t even get sick pay if they’re ill themselves.

Much as I love animals, (and I have had pets most of my life), and I fully appreciate the benefits they bring us, I would say that pet-owners simply can't expect the same rights that parents have. And I say that as someone who doesn't even have children.

Keeping a pet is a lifestyle choice and it involves an element of risk. When you take on an animal such as dog or a cat you're looking at a commitment of potentially 10 or 15 years, sometimes more, if they make it that long. Any pet owner must be prepared for the expense of feeding their animal(s), training them, vets' fees, insurance and making arrangements for care when they're away. It's quite a responsibility, not to mention expense, and it's no-one's responsibility but theirs.

As anyone who has or has ever had a pet will know, they become part of the family, and when they die it can be devastating.

My sister was distraught when her beloved dog was knocked down and killed in front of her, and two years on she can't talk about him without her eyes filling with tears. He wasn't just a cherished pet, he was fiercely loyal and came to her side, protectively, when he sensed she was under threat. The grief she felt when he died was very real and very raw. Many other pet owners will have experienced that same aching sense of loss at the death of a pet.

But when you make a choice to bring a pet into your life, you take a risk.

It could be said, as one commentator claimed during a recent TV debate, that having a child is also a lifestyle choice. And, she argued, the loyalty and unconditional love of a pet often makes them better companions than children. But was her grief at the death of her cat any less painful than that of someone who has lost a child? I think it goes without saying that her grief probably didn't even come close to that.

Yes, having a child is a 'lifestyle choice' and a huge responsibility that can last a lifetime. And they say losing a child is the worst thing, which nothing else can compare to.

I think it's important for children to grow up with a pet, as it teaches them about responsibility and bereavement. I still remember lying on my bed, as a child, sobbing when our little dog, Eddie, was hit by a car after escaping from the garden. It was my first experience of bereavement. But it didn't compare at all with the searing grief we felt when a family friend died shortly afterwards, aged just 11, from a brain tumour. How could we possibly know how her poor mother felt? We couldn't.

I have since, in my job, interviewed people who have lost children and they are haunted by a very specific grief in a way that nobody else is.

Pets are wonderful companions, and we feel it deeply when they die. But we can take comfort from knowing we gave them a decent life. Then we can move on.

* IT'S time something was done to tighten regulations surrounding the sale and use of fireworks.

This week the T&A reported on some appalling incidents in Bradford - including a firework thrown at a member of staff leaving the city's Marie Curie hospice. Elsewhere, a firework was thrown at a fire crew attending a blaze, and a Tesco store employee was burned by a firework thrown into the supermarket. And an entire street was blocked to traffic while a wedding party let off fireworks in the middle of the road. How utterly irresponsible, and what a selfish lack of respect for their neighbourhood.

Fireworks are noise pollution, they're dangerous, they terrify animals and they're an anti-social nuisance. It should be illegal to set them off for anything other than Bonfire Night.

* SAD to hear that Irish comic Sean Hughes has died, aged 51.

I first met him at a comedy festival in the Nineties, when he was one of the circuit’s hottest young stand-ups. The last time I interviewed him, prior to a Bradford gig, he was reflecting on middle-age and his father's death. I asked if that had made him more inclined to seize the day. "That's a bit Dead Poets' Society isn't it? I know I'm 47, but c'mon..." he grinned, puncturing a poignant moment with a laugh.

On stage, Sean's skill lay in shifting effortlessly between pathos and humour, and in person I found him endearingly playful.