Friday, April 20, 2012

I’ve been an animal lover for as long as I can remember. There hasn’t been a day in my life when I haven’t had a pet of some sort. Growing up, my family had fish, hamsters, guinea pigs, cats, and dogs at one point or another and I loved every single creature that made our house its home. Well, at least as much as you can love fish. My first cat, Spooky, was around even before I was alive and we quite literally grew up together. She was 21 when she died, and I was 18. It was a tough day at college when my mom called to tell me Spooky was gone. We were pals from the time I was big enough to yank on her ears and pull her tail (luckily for me she was very patient and docile), and my mom has plenty of embarrassing photos of Spooky and me as a toddler hanging out in the bathroom, playing in the toilet together.

My life is now graced with another cat, Libby, and a very spoiled rotten Shih Tzu, Sammy. They’re more than just pets to me, though, they’re part of my family and they both have their own personalities, especially my dog. He’s quite the character and gets away with just about anything he feels like doing because he’s so stinkin’ cute. This tiny little dog rules the roost. He only drinks the water in his bowl if there’s also ice in it. He only eats soft canned food, and only if it’s cut up into bite-sized pieces and fed to him by hand. He doesn’t like to get his poofy little face dirty, and I give in knowing that because he’s small, his blood sugar can drop quickly and he can have seizures if he doesn’t eat. It’s worth the extra time it takes to feed him if he never has a seizure again. Every day it’s a guessing game as to what kind of treats he will like at that moment, and he has a cabinet full. If you offer him a Greenie, a Dingo Goof Ball, a Buddy Biscuit, or a Petgetable (just some of the goodies he gets to pick from) he might take it and he might turn his nose up at it, but he won’t let you get away with giving him nothing. He has his own little wardrobe of sweaters and coats for the winter, not because he’s a little doggie fashionista, but because he’s small and old and gets cold very easily. If it’s raining when it’s time for him to go outside, his personal assistant (usually me or my sister) stands in the rain, holding an umbrella over him to ensure he stays dry while getting soaked ourselves. My cat’s not quite as demanding, thankfully, and usually all she wants is food and lots of attention. And what do I get in return for my service? Lots and lots of unconditional love.

That’s what’s so great about pets, specifically dogs and cats. They don’t care what you look like, how much money you make, or what kind of car you drive. They’re just happy you’re with them and they’re not afraid to show it. I’m certain that my dog and cat know or can sense when I’m upset or sad. Libby especially will glom onto me when she knows I’m down, following me around the house and climbing into my lap as soon as I sit down, laying down next to me on my bed, or coming over to put her face right up to mine and give me a few little licks on my forehead, as if she’s telling me that everything is okay. It’s amazing how being around animals can pick your spirits up just when you need it. There are lots of other benefits to having pets that have been scientifically proven. Studies show that petting a dog or cat can lower your blood pressure and calm stressed and frayed nerves. It’s even been shown that a cat’s purr has a unique, calming effect on humans when they hear it. And having a dog promotes overall health because dog owners are more likely to exercise by taking their pooch on walks. Having pets also has benefits for people who suffer from depression because it gives them a reason to get out of bed every day when they have to take care of another living being.

I love all kinds of animals, not just cats and dogs. Even bugs can sometimes pull at my heartstrings. Sometimes. I generally hate bugs. They’re creepy and gross and I’d prefer to stay as far away from them as possible. But, most of the time, I can’t bring myself to kill them. Take, for instance, the lady bugs that find their way into my house every single winter. For whatever reason, they almost always end up in the upstairs bathroom and usually in the bathtub when it’s cold outside. When I go to hop in the shower or bath, sure enough, there’s a lady bug waddling across the tub making its way to who knows where. I figure I have a few options: 1) Wash the lady bug down the drain, drowning it in the process, even though it’s kind of cute and just trying to stay warm and survive. Not a great option for the bug, and something I usually can’t bring myself to do. 2) Call my cat into the bathroom so she can take care of the insect intruder. Again, not a great option because my cat has never been a hunter. She’d just look at the bug and then look at me as if she’s saying, “Really? This is what you called me in here for? I’m no exterminator, you’re on your own. Is there any food in here?” 3) Scoop the lady bug up and out of the bathtub, and gently place it in a safe corner of the bathroom so we can both get on with our business. This is my go-to solution, even if it is a little out there. Even nasty, creepy spiders can sometimes get a pass from me, like the spider that took up residence in my bathroom, again, during the winter. (What is it with these bugs and my bathroom? Maybe I need to check the seal on the window in there…) He was tiny, smaller than a pea, and always hung out on the ceiling. I made a deal with him. “Ok, spider,” I said. “I promise not to squish you if you promise to stay up there and leave me alone. No crawling around on the floor. No sudden drops from the ceiling and dangling in front of my face. You don’t bother me, and I won’t bother you. Deal? Deal.” We both kept our ends of the bargain until it got warmer outside and he disappeared.

It breaks my heart to think of animals suffering in any way. I can’t walk into an animal shelter without supervision, or else I’d walk out with as many dogs and cats as I could fit into my car. The title of Crazy Cat Lady is a very real possibility for me when I reach my 80s if no one is going to be around to keep me under control. And don’t even talk about those horrible commercials on TV showing polar bear cubs floating away from their mothers on a tiny piece of ice, or abused and abandoned dogs and cats looking at the camera with their sad, sad eyes while Sarah McLachlan sings “Angel” in the background. Good lord. I have to change the channel every time those things come on before they get to the part where they tell you how to make a donation or else I’d bankrupt myself trying to save all those polar bears, puppies, and kittens.

Having pets is a lot of work, to be sure, but it’s well worth it. I know some people think I’m nuts for treating my dog and cat the way I do. They look at me like I have lobsters crawling out of my ears (thank you, “A Christmas Story”) when I tell them that my dog refuses to drink tap water (bottled only, please, and preferably Culligan) or that he gets a pile of gifts every year on his birthday, all wrapped of course, that he excitedly opens one by one. It’s one of the cutest things you’ve ever seen, I promise you. But I give the same look to anyone who says they have a dog or cat who lives outside and never comes in the house, or who has never been to the vet because it costs too much. Having a pet is a multi-year commitment, and if someone’s not willing to do what it takes to care for that animal then they shouldn’t be a pet owner. I can’t imagine not having a pet in my life, and it pains me to think that my dog and cat are getting up there in age, each 13 years old and Sam almost 14. But I’ll take whatever time I can get with them and use it wisely, spoiling them until they’re absolutely rotten to the core, just the way I like them!

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