Close your eyes and picture a veterinarian’s home life. What do you see? I bet that your scenario includes a menagerie of animals, including at least one dog, perhaps even a small farm or sanctuary. I’m willing to wager you are definitely not picturing someone with no pets at all. Clients and new acquaintances love asking about my pets, and 95% of the time, this question is framed as “Do you have any dogs?”
I haven’t had a dog since my old Labrador mix passed away last spring. Painfully aware that a non-dog-owning veterinarian is considered a strange anomaly, I quickly add “I’m not ready.” This is true, but probably not for the reasons you’re thinking. The uncomfortable truth is, I was no longer “ready” to be a dog owner well before he died.
I ensured, of course, that Loki received the loving care he deserved. He was family, and we were devoted to him. I don’t care to imagine how our lives would have been without his gentle patience and unconditional love, but after he died, I was relieved.
My unreadiness was affirmed a few months before his passing. We fostered a sweet, feisty, cuddlebug of a terrier puppy as he healed from a broken leg. He had the typical puppy behaviors that caused inconvenience, but they were mild, and with gentle shaping and communication of expectations, he would be a great addition…. to someone else’s family.
I am not currently that person with the time or energy to invest in the training, daily exercise, and attention that all dogs need and deserve. When we adopted Loki, we were a childless couple with plenty of space, free time, and energy. Life evolved and we adapted. I flexed my schedule, brought him to work, and used doggie daycare, but my love was increasingly tainted by vague guilt.
I’d listen to clients recounting daily trips to the beach or park, abundant exercise, and lots of interaction, and feel that twinge. My current life includes two children with special needs, a growing business, and a chronic illness that has drastically reduced what I can accomplish in a given day. When we returned the puppy, I wasn’t sad. Charming and adorable, he deserved more than I am able to give, for now.
Likewise, I suspect we have one cat too many. Number Three was a “foster fail” among a litter of feral kittens that we caught and adopted out. She was so difficult to socialize that when I spayed her, we notched her ear in case I had to return her to the colony. By the time she warmed up to us, she was integrated into the family, and to this day we are constantly entertained by her weird little quirks and idiosyncrasies.
I think the cats would agree, though, that three is a bit crowded in this little home. Cats require abundant resources and space in order to get along. There are skirmishes, and it’s not too bad, but it’s clear when we foster now that it increases the strain on their dynamics. When our oldest kitty makes his way to the Rainbow Bridge, I won’t be in a rush for another cat.
Being an animal lover is often equated with owning a lot of animals. I think it should equally mean respecting the needs of those animals, and making a selfless choice to limit ourselves when necessary. Many pet behavior “problems” are either the result of natural behaviors (scratching, territorial marking) incompatible with our own lifestyles or a response to the stress we cause by forcing animals to conform to our circumstances (separation anxiety). Quality means more than quantity.
And yet we are urged to adopt more animals, to save more animals. Actually, no. You adopt one animal, you help one animal. In my community, approximately thirty thousand animals enter shelters every year. Even if all were healthy and able to coexist peacefully with humans, there aren’t enough available homes to sustain the adoption model. Data from around the United States make the solution clear: tackle the problem at its source by reducing the number of births. In communities where spay and neuter programs have substantially increased the percentage of sterilized animals, shelters are often able to stop euthanizing animals for space.
Of course I am an animal lover with a professional life committed to improving animal welfare. That doesn’t I need a dog – not for now, anyway. It’s better to take on what I can reasonably handle so my pets and I enjoy the bond we share to its fullest, and to support spay and neuter efforts with my time and money. For now, I am content to enjoy dog ownership vicariously and to steal a few cuddles and kisses from my patients. I may meet that special someone tomorrow or in ten years; until then, this is plenty to keep my heart and my life full.