Living with pets: What they need, what they give

Dogs and cats, and  even reptiles and sometimes birds, can make what was once a house feel like a home. But they also need renovation touches all their own to make their lives truly comfortable, and comforting. (Wikicommons)

Dogs and cats, and even reptiles and sometimes birds, can make what was once a house feel like a home. But they also need renovation touches all their own to make their lives truly comfortable, and comforting. (Wikicommons)

We humans are a funny species. One of the things that makes us stand out in the world of animals is that we like to have other animals around. We love a bewilderingly wide variety of species and genera of pets.

Some people are quite happy without pets, and many of the rest of us sometimes wonder about those people. What’s wrong with them? How could they forgo the pleasures of having a dog? Or a cat? Or rabbits, birds, fish, hamsters, horses, guinea pigs, gerbils, snakes, not to mention wildlife that latches on temporarily, and sometimes forever. While mostly we only tend to love and adopt vertebrates, there are people who tend octopi, clams and jellyfish. And of course giant spiders (ten-inch-wide tarantulas, the most popular, don’t often bite their owners, but are fragile and can be easily damaged if handled).


What is it with pets and wildlife that grips so many of us? Part of it may be that pets give us back “love,” or something. I mean, dogs do love their owners. Cats merely tolerate them, and allow familiarity with their wonderful selves, for which we have to be grateful.

I know cats by this point, having cared for quite a few of them. They give back with their predatory beauty. They are the natural athletes (non-aquatic) of mammalia. While cats may cuddle and enjoying lying in people’s laps, they do not love. They offer approval.

Dogs are different that way. Other animals are capable of affection. Horse people swear by some horses, who exhibit very strong affection.

Parrots — another story all of their own — are not only very smart but also often very loyal. They live as long as we do. Marshall Josip Tito, who once ruled Yugoslavia and died in 1980, had a parrot named Koki. That parrot lives on in a tourist trap in Croatia today. Whether it misses Tito, I don’t know, but lonely old parrots are an issue.

The thing with pets goes far beyond seeking love and affirmation from them. We love them for themselves, and for the ticket back to the natural world that they offer. In place of that world, we often have concerns about the future. We’ve ended up with the role of the adults at the party, paying the mortgage, looking after the stuff, filling the pantry, repairing everything, working nine to five.

Cats really don’t seem to care about the future. Just dinner, that’s what counts.

Dogs were once nothing but working animals. Now, not so much. Only one in a thousand has an actual job, guarding sheep, or fetching ducks that have been shot out of the sky. The rest of the dog population is there for us to enjoy and feed, while they live for fun and walks. Most dogs aren’t worrying about stuff, they’re content just being themselves. I have to imagine that the same is true for pet clams and tarantulas. (In fact the whole concept of pet clams is a bit weird for me.)

A love of animals, a love of nature. The two are close, though in different proportions with different people. Birdwatchers are one variety of nature lovers, deer hunters another. Both spend considerable time in the fields and woods. Either of them may own a dog, or even a cat, and will be familiar with the issues our pets can bring us. To those of us who do love the outdoors and nature in all its glory, animals are an important part of life. They’re a way of bringing nature inside, into our adult world with its little phone screens, emails, bills and work.

The bigger the dog, the more exercise he or she would like. When choosing a dog, hey, go to the nearest shelter first, please. I’ll guarantee you that it is jammed with dogs who need a home. Buying puppies at the mall contributes to a puppy-mill business which should not be encouraged. Get the sort of dog that you are capable of keeping up with when it comes to walks and the pursuit of a frisbee, stick or other suitable object. Some kinds of dog, like border collies, seem inexhaustible, and would really like you to provide them with a flock of sheep to keep in line.

Choosing a cat? Again, check out the shelter. Some excellent choices are available. Every shelter is packed out with cats.

Already have a dog, and want a cat? That can work. Dogs are more flexible that way than cats. Depends rather on both dog and cat, but especially on cat. We have to understand something about cats here. Cats can be sweet, I mean, I’ve heard this said. But in my experience cats can also be completely tyrannical, capable of extreme nastiness. Before you subject your poor dog to this, make sure he or she is capable of standing up to the feline pressure.

Bringing a dog into a house with cat or cats can be very difficult, unless the cat is young enough to be able to take on something new, like a dog, to be managed along with the rest of the household. Older cats will not be so forgiving, and some dogs will just kill the cat. Happens. The best results come when both animals are young and they will often adopt each other.

A great many issues come with pet ownership. The biggest one is responsibility. Unfortunately, this has never been our strongest suit. Far too many animals are brought into our lives, loved for a few years, and then abandoned.

That’s the cruel side of our nature. We take the animals to the shelter and leave them behind. They never understand why they couldn’t go with us to wherever we were going. Our animal shelters and dog pounds are crammed with animals that once had forever homes and are now on the slide to being euthanized.

More than seven and a half million pet animals go into shelters across the nation every year. Some are strays and around 540,000 dogs are returned to owners, along with around 100,000 cats. Of shelter dogs, 31% are killed — “euthanized,” our weasel word for what we do. Of shelter cats, 41% are terminated. Less than 5% of stray cats are ever returned to their “owners.”

That is a thought for all of us who love our pets to keep in mind. Cats should be kept indoors, and only allowed outside if they can be monitored and kept on the property. Easier said than done, of course, but a stray cat is usually a dead one.

Dogs, too, should be indoor animals. Some dogs will not roam, or not go far. Others will visit all surrounding counties. Chaining a dog up in the yard, however, can be cruel. Invisible fence is better. Lots of walks and Frisbee-chasing is best.

Pets are good for us, a psychological cushion against the harsh reality of modern life. We crave the natural, and they give us that. But they also need their shots, their flea collars, and responsible care from us. That’s the biggest test of all.