About 10 years ago, my husband and I were in Nha Trang, Vietnam, having dinner at the home of our tour guide. While he spoke fluent English, his wife – a physician – struggled with the language and we were having a difficult time explaining to her exactly what I did as a small animal veterinarian.
At the time of our visit, companion animals were only beginning to be known in that country. After nearly three decades of food scarcity and brutal economic deprivation, only recently had the Vietnamese begun to develop a middle class, have disposable income and welcome dogs and cats into their homes. There was no readily accessible word in Vietnamese that translated to “pets” as we knew and understood it.
Finally, after another round of explanation, our host’s wife’s face brightened and she said, “Now I understand! The animals in America are special friends.”
Special friends. I often remember that phrase, which I consider a very accurate and even poignant description of companion animals, whenever I maneuver through racks of frilly dresses and leather jackets for dogs at my local pet supermarket; hear colleagues and clients talk about “fur babies” and “pet parents” or a patient’s “Mom” or “Dad;” and look at the industries that have sprouted up around and capitalized upon the notion that somehow our companion animals are furry, quadrupedal sons and daughters.
I’d venture to say that in the misguided process of elevating the status of our companion animals by referring to them as children or “kids,” we have actually done our dogs, cats, ferrets, guinea pigs and all other creatures great and small, as well as ourselves, a major disservice.
How so? Perhaps by anthropomorphizing them and our relationship with those creatures who share our lives and homes, we fail to see their uniqueness and value for who and what they are. Their value lies not so much in how alike they are to us, but how different they are from us. The American writer and naturalist Harry Beston described animals as “other nations” and “not our brethren or underlings.” I’d like to think that if I can empathize with what another “nation” feels, maybe that enhances my awareness and connectedness to all of life. Admittedly, it’s a thought that I am still wrestling with a bit, but it’s resonating more and more.
And in giving our relationships with companion animals the qualities of parents and children, we also thrust them into roles that, I believe, often confuse them. As far removed as a beloved pug may be from his lupine ancestors, I believe deep in his DNA he feels most comfortable not in the role of the child or another species, but as a valued subordinate in his pack.
A few weeks ago, a client was talking to me about the terminal illness of his 10-year-old dog. He is married with two small children, and he and his wife started a small business a few years ago. Money is tight and his canine buddy has an aggressive tumor in his mouth. We were talking about all of his options, including extensive surgery, radiation and perhaps the use of a vaccine specifically designed against the tumor. That protocol with a price tag of many thousands of dollars, might give about two and one-half years of a good quality of life. A far less aggressive option was to simply use an anti-inflammatory, pain relievers and support the dog over the next few months of life. He had chosen the second option and wanted to talk with me about that choice.
There were a few moments of silence on the phone and finally he said, “You know, if you asked me five years ago what I’d do, I’d tell you that he was my kid and I’d spend whatever money it took to make him well.”
“But he’s not your kid,” I added, and we both agreed that his life circumstances, and with them, those of his dog, had changed. The dog became the companion animal in the home and the human children who came after him became the “kids.”
“You’re right. He’s a dog and he’s loved, but he’s not my son.”
I work in a neighborhood that is populated largely by young adults starting out in the world. Many are newly married and have purchased or adopted the first dog or cat they will have as adults. There’s a sweetness in seeing the gentleness in how they deal with their animal companions and I often think that the dogs and cats are “dry runs” for the children who will most likely come along in the future. The dogs and cats are preparing the way, in a sense, for the development of devotion, care and tenderness that those couples will give to their sons and daughters.
As a veterinarian, I have seen this natural development play out time and again. I have met the eager young couple with their first puppy and, much like a pediatrician, have walked them through the pup’s first vaccines, behavioral issues, daycare choices and food selections. In the reception area, I have seen them tug on boots so that Chicago’s salt-covered sidewalks wouldn’t irritate their dog’s footpads, and noted the various sweaters and coats that over the years became part of their companion’s wardrobe. The empathy and kindnesses I observed were one of the gifts I have received as a veterinarian.
However, often in the course of two or three or more years, that same couple became parents to a little human. And in that transition, there was a definite change in the way they considered the dog or cat. To be sure, they were still conscientious, but there was a shift, sometimes subtle and sometimes not so much, in how they related to the animal in the home. Some of my work at that point was in helping them continue the connection to their animal companion and assisting in their navigation of a new role for the dog or cat in the family as they themselves shifted into new ways of being. I considered that role, sometimes small and sometimes large, to be a gift as well.
I currently live with four bassets, four cats and a tankful of fish. My husband and I are childless and as much as there are days when I cannot imagine not having a home with companion animals, there also is not a day when I consider our pack of hounds and clowder of cats as our “children.” I am not their “Mom.”
Instead, I am enthralled by our bassets’ keen ability to sniff out the smallest piece of cheese that remains on the cutting board (and get it), and our cats’ knack for entering the tightest of spaces by considering the spatial task at hand and maneuvering their paws and bodies in just the right way to accomplish it. I am delighted by their innate intelligences, their beauty, and what each species, including my own, possesses that the other does not. I see these differences as qualities to be celebrated and not measures of superiority or deficiencies. Each has different gifts, if you will, that can be appreciated and even celebrated.
And I know that if the natural order of life unfolds, my animal companions, unlike human children, will, most likely, pre-decease me. Inherent in that knowledge, too, is that in my first “hello” to them is an unsaid and implied “good-bye.” That makes each day special and rich in its urgency to enjoy every minute with them.
Our rapidly advancing technology has ironically connected us on a macro level, but has increasingly isolated us as well. It is no secret that for many of those who live alone, companion dogs and cats are often the only ones who welcome them after a busy day at work or keep them company throughout the day. Those human-companion animal bonds are important and, especially for senior citizens, can provide a connectedness that preserves physical and mental health and makes the day worth living. In a more perfect world and one that is less plugged in, perhaps those people would not be alone and their animal companions would be part of a larger support group, including extended family and friends.
Make no mistake: I do not consider companion animals to be “just” a dog or cat or any other creature. To the contrary, I consider and celebrate every Fluffy and Jake and Dinah and Annie and Max and Wrigley for who they are. They are not sons or daughters or any other way we humans have for describing our relationships with one another. They are, as our Vietnamese friend said years ago, rather “special friends,” worthy of care and concern and love and devotion. When you come right down to it, that is quite a lot.
September 12, 2019
Drew Doverspike, DVM, CVPP
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