Why We Love Our Pets

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Why We Love Our Pets

by Ari Armstrong, July 17, 2006

Taely, named for her ever-wagging tail, was born in 1995 and lived until the morning of July 14, 2006. Abandoned at birth and left to fend for herself as a kitten, she was rescued by a friend of my wife's family and spayed. That woman nevertheless couldn't keep her, so my wife Jennifer agreed to take her (a couple of years before Jennifer and I met). As Jennifer pointed out, she was in contact with Taely for a longer stretch of time than she was with any person, save members of her family.

So I've known Taely for about nine years. I had never considered myself a "cat person," but I became quite attached to her, and I really miss her.

While most readers have never met Taely, her death has prompted me to think about why so many of us value pets. So perhaps my notes will be of general interest to pet owners and, insofar as the keeping of pets reveals something about human values, even to those without pets.

And writing about Taely is part of my own grieving process.

Taely's Value to Me

Before I draw some general conclusions about the value of pet ownership, I should describe Taely's value to me.

Our value to Taely is apparent. We provided her with a safe environment, basic care, tuna juice (which must be considered a unique category), and companionship. I am only now realizing the full extent of her value to me.

I think it's accurate to say that, since I've been married, I've spent more time with Taely than with any other conscious being, second only to Jennifer. I never really considered that point before.

Taely was very friendly with us (though she sometimes hissed at other people). She would regularly sleep beside us (or on top of us) in bed. Sometimes when Jennifer was trying to sleep in past her usual waking hour, Taely would encourage her to get up and refresh the catfood bowl by licking her head. Taely had two prominent physical characteristics that accompanied her general contentment: tail wagging and loud purring. I've never heard a cat purr louder.

We even worked out a rudimentary communication scheme. A number of times when Taely wanted to sit in my lap, she would simply jump up, even if I was entranced by the computer screen. This tended to work out badly. (She kept her claws sharpened on her scratching posts.) So she took to cooing when she wanted up, to get my attention.

She was also fairly interested in avoiding activities that perturbed us, such as scratching the couch. Even though the material of our couch is particularly tempting for claw sharpeners, Taely quickly learned that we preferred her to use her official scratching posts. She was a quick learner, for a cat anyway, and I think she made a genuine effort to fit in smoothly with the household. (She had few of the mischievous traits I've seen in some other cats -- you know who you are.)

I've spent many, many hours reading with Taely curled up on my chest, her purring or sleeping. Or, if she got tired of that, she'd curl up beside me.

We took loads of pictures of Taely, because she's cute and because she was always doing funny things. Sitting inside of things, standing on top of things, chasing lights or strings, begging for tuna juice.

It was unfortunate for Taely that she lacked a vocabulary for "tuna." The poor kitten could never tell when I was using the can opener for, say, black beens, in which she had no interest, versus tuna. So she was frequently disappointed, even after spending considerable effort weaving around my legs.

My usual nickname for Taely was "munchkin."

So how is it that somebody with no especial affinity for cats became a "cat person?" Taely obviously loved us, with the simple affection of cats. She was a member of the household. We had constant, close contact with her. She very much responded to our affection, and thus she reflected in many ways our personalities.

The Value of Pets

I can see how a belief in ghosts sprang up. It's almost like Taely is still in the house. When we open the door, we expect her to trot toward us, purring. When the lights are dim and I see an article of clothing on the bed or a bag on the chair, I momentarily expect it to be the cat. It's a strange feeling.

There's the obvious sharing of affection. Relationships with cats are uncomplicated (at least in certain respects). I haven't read "the literature" about the benefits of pets to single elderly people, but I do not doubt that pets can confer both emotional and physiological benefits to people.

I think there's something more. We value pets for the relationship, but I think we also value them just because they are themselves valuers. One of the benefits of friendship recognized at least since Aristotle is that of seeing a bit of ourselves reflected in others, and taking inspiration from others. We are drawn to art because it can encapsulate in a tangible way our values. One of the joys of keeping pets is seeing them passionately pursue their simple values. Just lazing in the sun or eating tuna juice or getting pet was so obviously a source of contentment for Taely. She definitely pursued the things that she loved. She purred loudly, and she hissed vigorously. Within her natural limits, she knew what was for her and what was against her, and she pursued her values with zeal. She thus served as a constant reminder to take pleasure in life and enjoy our values.

Pets and People

Pets and their human keepers become very intimately attached. That pets become such a part of routine life is part of why people value their own pets so highly. Taely's death really hit me. I was struck by profound sadness and an inability to sleep well.

It's only natural that the death of our own pets impact us a lot more than the deaths of the pets of others. When we hear of the death of a friend's pet, our sadness is mainly for the heartache of the friend.

Because people are rational, they reflect our own rational capacity, and they contribute to our values in profound ways well beyond direct personal contact. Even distant acquaintances can encourage us in virtue and the pursuit of values, and of course people can easily communicate at a distance. Even total strangers can contribute to our knowledge and productivity. So that basically explains why an individual person can have such a strong relationship with a particular pet -- and suffer profoundly with the loss of that pet -- and also maintain strong ties even with people seen rarely.

Pet Health Care

Our pets have access to health care unavailable to any human being even decades ago. Not only is the technology available to quickly evaluate and address many health problems among pets, but people in the industrial world are wealthy enough to be able to spend considerable resources on pets.

I learned a few things about the health care of pets that others might find useful.

We had already decided to take Taely to the vet to get checked out. We had put her on lower-calorie food to get her to lose a bit of weight, but we started to think she was losing perhaps too much weight. We wanted to get her teeth checked out and fixed if necessary.

I wish we'd been quicker. After we decided to take her to the vet, she took a serious turn for the worse. On July 12, she became noticeably lethargic and less responsive to food and attention. So we moved up our appointment with the vet to that evening.

Unfortunately, the clinic we visited did not have the ability to analyze blood on site. I didn't realize at the time that many clinics do have that ability. That clinic drew blood but had to ship it out the next day, so we got no diagnosis. So during the night of July 13 we decided to go to a new clinic, the Boulder Emergency Pet Clinic. The service and care at that facility were vastly superior to the service and care of the previous clinic. The vet at the Boulder clinic was excellent. So the first lesson is to screen clinics and go to one that has the ability to analyze blood immediately, if the problem seems at all urgent.

So Taely had two pretty bad days. We were able to keep her drinking water, though she could have used more.

It turned out that she had serious diabetes with complications, so we had her put to sleep.

In retrospect, she had a few symptoms for several weeks consistent with the disease. She lost some weight. She had a bit of bad breath that went away after we got her treats that are supposed to help clean teeth, but we should have had her teeth checked out earlier. They may have suffered because of the diabetes. I thought her newfound interest in food like chicken was related simply to her new interest in the teeth-cleaning treats, but now I think it may have been her body's way of trying to get some extra protein. So the second lesson is to get regular vet check-ups and, if needed, teeth cleaning and blood work. It's possible that, had we put Taely on insulin earlier, she might have gone on in reasonable health for some time. (Wikipedia notes that insulin was discovered in the late 1800s and made available for human injection in the 1920s.)

A third lesson is to keep track of a pet's weight. I think if I'd weighed the cat every month or so, I might have noticed that her weight, which we were hoping would drop a bit, actually dropped more steeply than it should have at a particular time. It's hard to notice gradual changes without measurements. I don't know if it would have made a difference, but tracking weight would be an easy and low-cost way of checking one obvious sign of health.

Taely developed a serious disease that was probably impossible to prevent, though I wonder if we might have been able to treat it for some additional time, had we caught it earlier. (I also wonder if a much different lifelong diet might dramatically reduce the risk of feline diabetes. I'll look into that if we decide to get another cat.)

We provided Taely with many good and happy years, and her life was almost certainly a lot happier and longer than it would have been without us. Yet, in retrospect, I wish I would have handled her health care a bit differently.

The decision to put a pet to sleep is a traumatic one. At least we took some comfort in being there at the end, petting her, and knowing that she would no longer suffer.

Another incidental lesson that pets offer their humans is that life is limited. You'd better take advantage of your days. In some respects, the closeness of a relationship with a pet can prepare a person for close relationships with other people. And in some respects the mortality of a pet can help us come to terms with our own mortality and that of our human loved ones.

Losing Taely has been a very painful experience. But of course having her was worth it, and my life is richer because of her.

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