Answer: Full disclosure: I have lived with cats for half of my life, so I speak with that experience in mind. The most significant aspects affecting the outcome of getting a pet are who wants that pet, and what sort of pet it is. Right off the mark, I am stating that exotic creatures like kangaroos, polar bears, pit vipers, cheetahs, and baboons, are not meant to be pets. Owning certain animals will bring you into conflict with the law.
However, the presence of typical pets in a household offers many benefits for the family, including giving one more opportunity for its members to have a living creature to cuddle, to play with, and to care for. It is nice when people can cuddle each other, and this is a stand-alone statement. However, some people who are not cuddlers will feel comfortable cuddling a cat or a dog. Some people miss having children in the house, and find the presence of a cat or a dog to be comforting. We speak to them, feed them, take them outside for exercise, and care for their health. Animals bring out the altruistic in us, just as children do, and this makes us better, more caring, and less selfish persons. There was even research that when dogs and their owners gaze into each other’s eyes, oxytocin is produced in both the dogs’ and the people’s brains! This also happens between human babies and their mothers. This is one of the most significant things that we like about having a pet—the relationship of mutual affection that gets built up. It has been generally acknowledged that those who are cruel to animals will also, sooner or later, be cruel to people—because being cruel is being cruel, no matter the victim. Becoming socially adept adults requires us to care for more than just ourselves. The more we feel a connection, a relatedness, to others, the kinder we will be. We have to remember that we are animals too. The kinship people feel with their dogs goes back around 15 thousand years, during a process in which prehistoric people and wolves co-domesticated. At this point, researchers believe that all dogs descended from one particular prehistoric wolf that no longer exists. Cats were painted into the hieroglyphs and were sometimes revered. As a matter of fact, some of those cats were depicted as painting, with paint, on walls! If you are curious about this fascinating topic, you may consult the book, “Why Cats Paint: A Theory of Feline Aesthetics” by Burton Silver and Heather Busch. These symbiotic and interesting relationships have added to the gentleness and magnanimity of civilized life throughout the ages. The benefits of having a pet are many, for both the owner and the pet.
However, we always need to be aware that pets are creatures with rights to good treatment and nurturing. This is why it is important to analyze who wants that pet. If everyone is in agreement, then a mutually supportive relationship will exist, and all is good. If one person disagrees, then the rest of the family members have to deal with that. It depends on the reason for the disagreement. If that person is allergic to a certain type of pet, then that trumps all. Sorry. It becomes a health issue, and no one should have to get sick just to endure a pet. Of course, in such families, a fish might be the answer, because it is not feathered nor furry. Then, people still have the benefit of caring for a living creature—and this is a significant benefit to a person’s life experience. If the person in disagreement has just not ever had to live with a pet before, they may resist the idea forever, or they may come to agree to try. The ones who want the pet must present their case with both passion and compassion. It is best if every member of the household can buy in to the idea one way or another.
So, once the decision has been made, it is important for parents to realize that, at least if this a typical cat or dog, it is, in all actuality, a family pet. What this means is that parents cannot hold it over their children’s heads that they are supposed to be caring for it, and that if they don’t, they are severely disappointing their parents. This is just creating a problem for nothing. Rarely does a member of a family have a pet just for them. Now, it may happen that a teenager wants a pet snake, or a pet tarantula, or something repulsive to the rest of the family. I knew a family where that happened, and the snake lived in a glass aquarium in the teen’s bedroom. That teen cared for that snake, and fed it the required dead, frozen mice. It wasn’t big, anyway. But usually, in most cases, it is dogs and cats that we are speaking of here. Even birds can be in this category, as well as gerbils and guinea pigs. These all have to be seen as the family’s pet. Even though gerbils and guinea pigs may seem to be more entertaining to a child or a teen, the parent has to know that cleaning such cages is a major production, and it will be hard for a 7-year-old to do it. The cages are bulky, and, for gerbils, sometimes contain convoluted tubes that snap together. You, as a parent, may be able to induce your young child to help with the process, but if you expect that child to do the whole procedure, you are going to end up with a mess of spilled water, wood chips and poop. The realistic end result of making your child do it all is that you are going to end up being a screaming meanie, and peace will leave the household—and for what? If the purpose of getting a pet is to teach a child about animal care and how to clean up after them, then you are going to have to model that, in order to show them how to do it properly, and this cannot be done without the issue of developmental readiness of your child-helper being taken into account.
Cleaning the environment is certainly an aspect necessary to the acquisition of a pet. Dogs and cats require vacuuming of the rugs, floors, furniture, and even the animal itself, sometimes frequently. Their owners require lint removers. Another requirement is disposing of the dung. Pregnant women will not want to clean litter boxes of cats. When dogs go for a walk, the owner needs to carry a litter bag. Cat owners need to dispose of hardened feces in their gardens. This is just a necessary thing, like parents dealing with dirty diapers. It comes with the territory. I have heard of toilets that cats can be trained to use, either the human one, or one on the floor that contains a material that is flushed regularly. That sounds great to me, if you relish the idea of training your cat.
Beyond cleaning, the next challenge will be veterinary bills, although animal clinics now sell pet insurance. This small cost will be a great help towards those huge bills when the animal becomes truly ill or hurt. I found out about this insurance when, about 20 years ago, I received a bill for my kitten that had squeezed through the railing and fallen off the upper balcony onto a dirt pile. She had an overnight stay at the vet clinic, with x-rays, which ended up costing $500. She not only survived, but seemed basically unhurt. No wonder people talk about cats having nine lives! Sometimes, our pets need other health-related services. My parents gave their cat insulin shots every day. Sometimes animals get hurt by cars, or other animals. One of my earlier cats used to get abscesses from fighting with other cats in the urban neighborhoods, and although he wasn’t intimidated by other city animals, including dogs, he was no match for the coyote who got him in the end. At least, he had lived 16 years, and the last months lying about under the green and purple clover in the country were happy for him. There were no cats out there to fight with. However, coyotes fight to eat. There is nothing pet-like about them.
Pet owners also have to think about the animal’s needs, as well as their own. If they are gone from home for a long time during the day, the pet may feel confined to their cage (such as dogs), or want to go out (such as cats and dogs). They may feel lonely. I knew two Irish red setters who were owned by pub owners in London, and they were kept in one room above the pub all day. They used to scratch at, and eat the linoleum from boredom and frustration. That was a disturbing situation. Animals require some attention. Owners need to recognize this, and allot some time for their animals. If the owners like to travel, they have to either take their pet to be cared for elsewhere, or they have to have someone into their home to care for the animal. The reason I know about that pet snake getting fed frozen mice is that I happened to be the person who visited to take care of it one night. Spontaneous short vacations become a little less spontaneous, and more planned.
Owners also need to keep their environment animal-friendly—they need to restrict what is left out on the floor. Some animals take objects to play with. I had a cat that used to take small objects (up to the size of a ball of wool) in her mouth to the kitchen, where she would bat them around, until they ended up disappearing under the fridge. If they just play with the object, that is one thing; if they pee on the objects, that is very objectionable. And if they eat the object, that is another thing entirely. Little plastic objects have been found in pets’ stomachs, to the detriment of their health. Owners also have to pay attention to the food they are giving their pet. Some cat food contributes to Urinary Tract Infections. Food given as scraps from the kitchen table may not be suitable for their digestion, and it also trains them to beg while their family is eating, which can be annoying to them and/or their guests. I remember being at dinner at my boyfriend’s sister’s apartment. I was eating ice cream. Suddenly, her dog jumped up and licked that ice cream right off my spoon! I didn’t like that much, even though it demonstrated a great deal of dexterity on the part of the dog! I don’t even know if ice cream is a healthy food for dogs, and at that time, I wasn’t thinking about his needs, I have to admit. Normally, though, people do have to think about their pets’ needs. The pet is not just an object to toy with, a simple and convenient source of amusement for their owners. Dog owners need to take training on how to train their dogs in a way that doesn’t bring out the tyrant in them. It’s amazing to me how harshly some dog owners scream at their dogs, or yank them on their leashes. Really, it is a similar situation to becoming a parent or a teacher—a person should never do that if all they want is power and control over a subservient, smaller being. So, I suppose people have to ask themselves the question, “Why do I want this pet?” The answer ought to be beneficial to both the owner and the pet.
The saddest thing about having a pet is that, unless it is a tortoise that lives to 70 or 80, maximum 100, you will always outlive it. This introduces that sorrowful fact to children, for good or ill. Grief is part of life, but it is not an easy part. At any rate, if you do choose to obtain a pet for yourself and your family, enjoy it while you can! It’s a “warts and all” type of situation, a “for better and for worse” situation…but it can sure bring smiles to faces for years in the meantime!