I grew up with pets. As a matter of fact, my rather impulsive (he probably thought of himself as forward thinking) Dad brought home a puppy to my two brothers the day my Mom brought me home from the hospital. Because you know, an infant and a puppy go hand in hand. I’m sure the adult conversations in the house that day were not pleasant. Nevertheless, Pierre the poodle and I grew up pals. We had many hours of cuddles and talks in the night when I was small. When I was in the sixth grade, he was put down. I do not remember all the details of his illness, but one Saturday while I was playing outside with my neighborhood friend, my mother came to me and told me it was time. She asked if I wanted to come and for reasons I’m now unaware of, but sure my 12 year old self was honoring, I told her I would stay home. She looked sad. I felt conflicted. He and I had grown apart over the years. His aging body and my growing body were not as compatible as they once were, but I remember crying in the night after the weight of his death fell upon me, his body no longer at the foot of my bed.
Although I will never remember all the time we had together, I know his presence and our relationship affected me greatly. I’m certain he is why I love animals and why I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was younger. After Pierre died we were petless for a while, much to my dismay. Then one day a stray cat came to the front door. My Dad said, “Let it in.” I remember my mom saying something like, are you crazy? But I jumped to open the door. That cat walked right in and plopped herself on my Dad’s lap. From then on she was ours. We came to understand that our neighbors left her behind when they made a sudden move. I could not fathom doing such a thing, but I was happy we got to claim her as our own. She was a beautiful long haired white cat who we lovingly and oh so creatively called, “Miss Kitty” and she became my best friend.
Throughout high school and into college, there were always kittens running amuck. These were not Miss Kitty’s babies, but another stray and rather wild cat that chose underneath our house to birth litter after litter. I spent many hours with furry babies climbing on me, laughing at their playfulness, and being way too distracted from homework watching them explore their world. One of those kittens eventually came to live with me in college, then I added another kitten to my pack. Both of those cats became my children’s first pets; cats that snuggled next to them as babies, who ran for cover when they started crawling, and curled into their laps when they stayed still for more than five minutes. One died at 18 and the other died at 20. An amazingly long run and a life filled with giving and receiving love.
We currently have two cats, one dog, and a bunny. A few years ago, my youngest had the experience of loving and losing a hamster. When she turned seven a hamster was her chosen birthday present. She would sit on the floor and hold her tiny friend. She made exercise courses for her and houses. She proudly showed her to all her friends and family. Almost a year later, her precious hamster died. I died a little inside too watching her experience that loss. We buried her pet in our backyard. She made a marker with a stone. For a while she couldn’t look at pictures we had taken of her, but now affectionately remembers the time they had together and considers getting another one, but “Not yet.”
The benefits of children having pets have been touted for a long time. From increasing compassion and empathy to learning responsibility, children rack up heart lessons when a pet (or five) is a part of their lives. Not only is it good for their heart it’s also been shown to be good for their health.
“Researchers suggest this protective effect may be the result of early exposure to lots of bacteria that are carried by dogs and cats. Exposing young children to these bacteria helps “exercise” their immune systems early in life so that they’re better able to resist allergic diseases later.”
Neither of my children has ever suffered from allergies and they are rarely sick. While I realize there are many other factors that attribute to their good health, I do think the connection between pets and the strength of their health, both physical and mental, is undeniable.
On any given day, when we turn into our driveway after being away, if our cats are outside, they will come over to the car, wait for us to exit and rub their bodies against our legs. Our dog goes completely berserk like she hasn’t seen us in years even if it has only been a few hours (and sometimes only a few minutes!). Witnessing the sheer happiness an animal expresses towards your very existence is a heart swelling experience that I’m sure is sending happy neurochemicals all over the brain. Caring for a dependent creature gives children the opportunity to practice love and to strengthen their understanding of their own abilities to positively affect a life. When my kids take our dog for a walk or opens a window to let a cat (yes, they come to the window of our dining room to be let in), or feeds the bunny they are establishing a foundation of what meeting needs looks like and what that requires of them. They help bathe the dog, clean up accidents, clean the bunny cage, and give lots of pets and cuddles. Are they solely responsible for the animals? Of course not. They are family pets and taking care of them is never placed onto their shoulders as a punishment or restriction. We all pitch in and we all receive the joy from their presence in our family. And the laughter? If we could measure laughter in money we would be rich beyond our wildest dreams, but honestly, we already are because…pets.