My family had a cat when I was very young. It was a ginger tabby by color but it was a stray that my parents took in, so I’m not really sure what breed it was. My parents named it Rambam, after the famous rabbi and doctor of the Middle Ages, Maimonides.1 Ginger tabbies apparently have a reputation for being easy-going but that didn’t apply to Rambam. My parents were always very clear with anyone who would come to our house that they should leave the cat alone because he had a habit of biting strangers. Rambam would lie on his back on the stairs, the upper half of his body hanging off the side, leaving his belly exposed so that people would try to rub it. Then, when they did, he would nip at their hands and arms. (He was devious like that.)
My parents also told me that there was one time when I crawled under our piano because I was following Rambam and he bit me because I pulled his tail. I don’t remember that happening, though I suppose it’s possible that I blocked it out because it was too traumatic for me. Also, I realize that it’s my fault that I got bitten. I’m just saying: Rambam wasn’t always the nicest cat.
It wasn’t Rambam’s fault that he was often on the defensive. He had clearly been abused and neglected by his previous owners. We didn’t have many of the details but, from what my parents have told me, Rambam hadn’t been fed consistently and he probably had to suffer through a few freezing Chicago nights here and there. Then, when he was living with us, he had to deal with a baby (who grew into a toddler) invading his space. I was a good natured little boy, or so I’ve been told, but I’m sure Rambam would have been just as happy without me around.
I’ve never really had a pet on a permanent basis. There was Rambam, obviously, but the only memories I have are stories my parents told me and the pictures I’ve seen. When I was in fourth grade, we “babysat” a guinea pig for a friend of mine while he and his family spent the year in Israel2 and then, when Trudy and I lived together at her parents’ house after college, her dog, Preston was still around. Preston was around for quite a while, but he was still never really my dog, especially since Trudy and I moved into our own place after a year and he stayed at Trudy’s parents’ place.
The fact that I’ve never considered myself a “pet owner” is probably one of the reasons why, shortly after Eitan was born, I was one of those parents who would get all up in arms when pet owners would compare their pets to children. I was always respectful in person if a pet owner would tell me about how much work they had to do for their animals, but inside I was thinking, “Oh really? You’re tired? And you hate cleaning up poop? Please, come to my house so you can be up every two hours and so I can show you how many articles of clothing I’ve thrown out because of my son’s bowel movements.”
Then I read a blog post that made me think a little more about how I saw my experiences as a parent and the experiences of the pet owners that I knew who did not have kids. It occurred to me that I was being unfair by taking the holier-than-thou approach and turning care-giving into a competition so I relaxed those sentiments a bit. I also thought more about those few days that Preston spent with Trudy and me at our apartment while her parents were out of town and the way that Preston urinated on me every time I tried to bring him outside.3 As it turns out, urine is urine; it’s warm and it’s yellow and it stinks just the same when it soaks through your shirt, whether it comes from a baby or a dog.
Then, last week, an old friend of mine, who had recently gotten a new puppy (she’s the dog in the featured image for this post), wrote the following on Facebook:
I was ready for the cuteness and the altered sleep pattern and the dealing with many poops, but I was not ready for the fear and helplessness of a sick puppy. I took her to the vet and she doesn’t have a temperature but she won’t eat or drink and is trembling in her sleep, and it’s tearing me up inside. Any words of encouragement from pet owners who know this happens and passes would be greatly appreciated.
It made me think of the first time Eitan caught croup. I remembered how pitiful he looked during the day, with his sniffling nose and tired eyes, and that awfully harsh, barking4 cough that came out at night. I remembered how it felt to know that the person I cared about more than anything was suffering and that there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to stop it, aside from snuggling with him and giving him Tylenol and Advil to help him sleep.
And so, I commented on his post:
I’m not a pet owner but I do have a child and the feelings you’re experiencing are exactly the same as when an infant gets sick. I’m going to assume that the principle is the same – puppies get sick, kids get sick, parents/owners get torn up taking care of them. And then they get better.
Welcome to parenthood.
Based on his response, it seemed like he found my comment helpful. From that point on, he said that the biggest obstacle he had was trying to drown out the emotional part of his brain by using logic. (I laughed and wished him lots of luck with that endeavor.) For what it’s worth, other people also commented that their dogs had been through similar situations and my friend should just keep caring for his puppy and she should be fine shortly. Sure enough, a couple of days later, she was back to her old self.
The truth is, the principles are the same. Pets may not be kids, but the owners who care for them are parents. Pet owners are invested in their animals’ well-being and they put up with a lot crap – both literally and figuratively – to meet that end. They feed, clothe and shelter their pets. They deal with awful smells and awful weather and they pay exorbitant amounts of money on medical bills to help keep their “kids” healthy.
So, if you happen to be a parent of a human child and you find yourself looking down your nose at pet owners who try to compare themselves to you, I hope you’ll reconsider. Their “kids” may not be kids and the situations may be different, but they’re parenting with love and they’re putting in the work just the same as you are.
1. Rambam is the acronym in Hebrew. And yes, I’m serious; that was the cat’s name.↩
2. The guinea pig’s name was Harry Caray. Again, yes, I’m serious.↩
3. Every. Single. Time.↩
4. See? Kids are more like animals than you think.↩