Why We Have Pets

At any given point in my father’s life, he owned a poodle. Not necessarily because he chose to, but because life, with its infinite array of surprises, kept presenting him one. In all, I believe, he owned six: Nicole, Taffy, Buffy, Duffy, Nefertiti, and Poppycock. The last of them, Poppy, outlived both my parents and went on to spend her golden years with my sister Cydney. Just as my father didn’t have much choice in acquiring these dogs, he played almost no role in naming them. My mother named Nicole. My sisters named Taffy, Buffy, and Duffy. And my stepmother named the last two. It’s worth noting that, early in his marriage to my mother, who died young from breast cancer, my dad selected two dogs on his own—both impressively masculine breeds. The first was a Doberman pinscher he named Storm, after Storm King mountain near West Point, where my father served as Assistant Chaplain. The second was a German shepherd my mother called Gretchen, in keeping with the Teutonic theme. My mother attended to such details. 

Shortly after my father brought Gretchen home, my parents adopted Nicole, a miniature French poodle with an appropriately Gallic name. They acquired Nicole, I am told, for my sister Cydney, who must have been about 8 or 9 at the time. After that, it was poodles, poodles, poodles to the day my father died—with a handful of cats mixed in. And there was my reptile collection during the 1970s. Oh, and the motley crew of puppies my sister Kristin brought home on a whim. To my stepmother’s relief, I disbanded my menagerie by eighth grade. And none of Kristin’s whims stayed with us long, each miraculously disappearing when the kids were at school. Let’s just say my dad and the people at the SPCA were on a first-name basis.

Now, after we kids flew the coop and no one remained to assist with animal husbandry, my father became the designated Dog Waste Monitor. For this task, he employed a galvanized metal pail and a small garden shovel, which he kept by the garage door. Each day, he would trudge out into the backyard, implements in hand, and scoop up the dog messes, drop them in the pail, and dispose of the contents in the trash bins by the alley. Occasionally, when I was visiting my parents as an adult, I would join my father in this task, if only to give him moral support. Not infrequently, as he bent low at the knees and scooped up one of those redolent dog gifts, he would say to no one in particular, “Why do we even have pets?”

This was a rhetorical question, of course, because it didn’t matter why, exactly, we have pets. The fact is, my father had a pet. He always had a pet. But it must have felt good to release that statement into the cosmos every now and then—the equivalent of a well-timed f-bomb. 

Even so, he knew the answer.

Now, here we are in 2021. My father has been gone for years, and I recently turned 60. My adult life has seen its own parade of cats, horses, snakes, goldfish, and turtles. Last year, we reached a new milestone when, bored stiff by the COVID lockdown, my daughter talked us into adopting a Saint Bernard puppy. I blogged about this earlier because the entire episode has been, well, interesting, even revelatory. Now 11 months old, Lando weighs about 120 pounds and drools so much I’ve taken to following him with a mop after he drinks from his water bowl. I’m not exaggerating. The drool is epic—and viscous. I swear those dangling, tensile strands of spit have a life of their own.

During the last few months, our monster puppy developed loose stools and, then, persistent diarrhea. We’ve been to the vet numerous times and only now (we hope) are arriving at a solution. Multiple diagnoses have surfaced: food allergy, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel disease, stress, microscopic parasites. The recurring theme among these diagnoses? Many dollars spent.

Who knew a puppy could be afflicted so young, by such an array of concerns, and at such breathtaking expense?

Now, when a Saint Bernard has diarrhea, it’s no laughing matter. A simple walk around the block requires a half-dozen green poop bags and exceptional forbearance. My wife and I developed a two-handed, double-bag poop removal technique, which has helped. But, no matter how careful we are, we always leave a patch of foul-smelling, diarrhea-coated grass behind. This might account for the proliferation of No Poop, No Pee signs around our neighborhood. Occasionally, as if he can read those placards, Lando will come to a screeching halt and release his payload directly onto the hot concrete sidewalk. This presents its own clean-up challenges.

The prescribed diarrhea treatment involves prescription dog food; a probiotic capsule (served with every meal); a powder called Panacur, which we sprinkle over wet food in the morning; and 2 ½ large white bacteria-killing tablets, delivered by means of Pill Pockets (twice daily). 

Why do we even have pets?

On top of all this, our cats, Gita and Winston, are getting along in years and require their own levels of special care. Gita, a high-strung Abysinnian, gets so stressed out when we leave for vacation that she develops sterile cystitis. This frustrating condition means she displays all the signs of a urinary tract infection without having harmful bacteria in her system, so antibiotics are of no use. Multiple bouts of cystitis have left the old girl a bit leaky, so she sleeps on waterproof bed pads and takes anti-anxiety medication to keep her calm. We administer this drug using something that looks like a monkey condom to rub ointment in her ear. Oh, and she also receives biweekly antibiotic shots to manage a tooth infection—and monthly steroid injections to help with an irritable bowel.

Not to be outdone, Winnie, our blue-point Siamese, receives twice-daily ear ointment to treat his hyperthyroidism. He also gets a monthly steroid injection for his irritable bowel, which, when it flares up, makes for a nasty sight in the cat box. Both cats tend to dehydration, so we take them to the vet for subcutaneous fluids each month. To encourage them to drink more water, we set up a softly tinkling cat fountain in our upstairs bathroom. I can’t tell you how many times I woke up in the middle of the night thinking that tinkling was our roof leaking.

Once again, Why do we have pets?

As I said, my father posed his question rhetorically. He knew exactly why he had pets, even if he feigned playing no role in their acquisition. And no matter how much I grumble about Saint Bernard diarrhea, or vet bills, or thumb condoms, I also know why. Every pet owner knows. We all enter into that unspoken contract when we go kitten or puppy shopping or adopt a stray we find in the neighborhood. When my father grumbled like that, I didn’t even venture a response. “Oh, Dad, you know you love Poppy,” or, “They give so much more in return!” There was no need. When he went back inside after his clean-up was done, and Poppycock came to meet him in the hallway, he would bend over—slowly, because he was old by then—and stroke her little head with his baseball glove of a hand. Then those guileless black eyes would gaze up at him and cast whatever spell dogs cast—and he was bewitched all over again.

I go through similar cycles with Lando. When it’s raining and he makes that I need to take a dump right now sound, I mutter shameful execrations. I didn’t ask for a goddamned puppy. Then, after he’s taken care of business in the alley, Lando and I come back inside, and I towel him off—paws first, then his enormous block-shaped head, and finally his body. About that time he throws himself at my feet, rolls on his back, and asks for a belly rub. Then I, too, am powerless against his devious doggy charms.

Only those who never owned a cat or dog or cockatoo or turtle fail to understand why we have pets. That’s fine. They have escaped the animal sorcery and may, in fact, be more intelligent people. They certainly have cleaner homes. The rest of us—hapless residents of Circe’s island—reserve the right to torment ourselves with vet bills, poop bags, and cat boxes—and, when regret overtakes us, mumble contemptuously, Why do we have pets?