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The truth about cats and dogs – and me

September 17, 2010

Meet Sally.

Recently I needed to thank a colleague who loves all things elephant. I decided to go beyond the tschotske, and I adopted on her behalf an African elephant toddler who lives on a sanctuary between here and Little Rock. The arrangement included food for a year (for the elephant) and visitation rights – perhaps my ideal person-pet relationship.

For the next four days, I’m taking care of two dogs and four cats whose rightful owners, our friends Russell and Amanda, will be enjoying an art festival and a long weekend. I drove a few miles down the road on Wednesday night to learn how to measure the food and locate the leash and to meet Buddy, Sally and Merlin. (The names of the other three cats – a tabby, a calico and a Russian Blue – didn’t grab me, but I think we’ll get by.)

I’m checking on them twice a day until Sunday, making sure they get food, water and walks. My training included introductions and a tour. “Okay!” I said afterward. “I’ve got it.” Dog food is in that closet; cat food is in the entryway. Buddy runs free while Sally gets a leash. Merlin and the other three cats enjoy filtered water and an open-door policy. Buddy gets a bowl, and Sally eats off the floor because she’s spooked by the sound of her collar hitting the rim of a bowl. (At least, I think that’s Sally. If I’m wrong, they’ll correct me. Right?)

No problem.

Then: “And here’s the number for the vet,” says Russell. “They know all of us pretty well.”

Uh, come again? How well? Why? What is this, pet hospice?

Now, I have experience as a pet sitter. There was Max, the giant rotweiler with Lyme’s disease, who would become temporarily paralyzed if he didn’t get his medication on time. There are my mother’s hummingbirds, whose feeders must stay full of a particular sugar-water formula. In grad school I spent the weekend with a Bichon Frise named Clyde. Once in high school I took care of a house-trained rabbit. Another time many years ago, when potbellied pigs were all the rage, my cousin and I were knocked flat by one on our way into a vacationing neighbor’s house to feed the pig, the chinchillas, and a few dozen cats.

But somehow, this is the first time that I’ve gotten the “Emergency numbers are on the fridge!” talk for pets, and I was so not ready. Should I know how to check for feline fever and pulse? And given that howling and panting – cause for concern (maybe) in a kid – is kind of a canine standard, what’s my red flag?

I relaxed considerably when they then told me who gets priority boarding, so to speak. You know, who to grab first in case of fire. (Buddy. I’m pretty sure.) That really lightened the mood – though they weren’t really joking.

So far, no tough decisions. Our first visitation went fine, and our friends even left me a note with names and physical descriptions (for the dogs: “the cute one”). I brought Don and Jack with me – more company for the lonely pets, and a nice walk for all of us.

It’s good practice, because eventually we’ll have pets, too. My husband wants a dog (he still gets postcards from Penny, a dog who went to live on a west Texas farm when his family moved to a place with no backyard); my son will want a puppy. Don’t get me wrong; I can relate. I have loved Bob the cat, among others, and General the horse. But they were low-maintenance – they lived outside full-time, and in all but the iciest weather, they simply foraged. When we left home, we left – no pet-sitter arrangements, no emergency contacts. Which is the part that makes me most nervous about becoming a pet owner. Around here, most dogs remain un-collared, roaming without bounds, chasing raccoons and deer and eating the neighbors’ chickens. In order for that not to be my dog’s (and my neighbor’s chickens’) fate, he’ll have to live inside with us. We’ll have to get a petsitter, too.

And a vet, the scariest part. Because after the outside-only cats and horse came Buster, a Jack Russell who lived inside with us and took on a human quality that our farm pets hadn’t had. They had lived outside and taken care of themselves, and when they died, I was sad – but it was a circle-of-life sort of sadness. We were stricken with grief when Buster met an untimely death, though, after an accident on the road and a desperate trip to the nearest animal hospital.

That’s how it goes, though, when it comes to loving living things. Scary but entirely worth it.

Day-to-day, with people and pets, my concerns about losing them are overcome by more immediate and benign woes – feeding them, cleaning up after them, playing with them, playing without them. Deciding how much more I have time for.

(Everything. Somehow. I’d have to find time for this!)

Cross your fingers, please, that nothing bad happens to these animals while I’m in charge. And a shout-out to those of you who don’t want to hold somebody else’s newborn, bobbly-headed baby: I hear you. I totally hear you.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2010 6:40 pm

    That dog really is especially cute! And will be just fine. I adopted a dog with less than no experience (my parents were pet-averse, not just pet-ambivalent) and she’s been with us for over 10 years nonw.

  2. September 17, 2010 7:48 pm

    What a heart-warming post. You have such a love for animals that is almost foreign to me. I had a cat once, for years, and losing her was devastating. I work in a pet-friendly, crunchy-granola type building. I love seeing and petting all the dogs that wander in, and staring into their beautiful eyes. But at the end of the day, I can’t shake the feeling that I’d be an inadequate pet owner.

    • September 17, 2010 7:56 pm

      Oh, Belinda, much of it is foreign to me, too. I’ve loved animals, but mostly I’ve backed away. The most endearing thing about pets for me now is seeing my son pet and play with them. Last night, after we left the dogs and cats in their home (thankfully!) to come to ours, he asked, “Are the dogs sad?” Which is almost enough for me to go get him a puppy right now. Almost.

  3. September 17, 2010 8:34 pm

    Crossing my fingers for you, Leslie!

    We have two cats and a dog and I just love how my daughter interacts with them. No matter WHAT she is doing – even when she’s cranky – she always lights up when one of them enters the room or sits and frolics beside her.

    We had them before she was born and have been “pet people” for a long time, but it can be a hassle sometimes when you go on a vacation and you have to think about things like sitters or when they’re struck with a condition, the medical bills can get pretty high as well. My dog had two major surgeries for her legs and because she’s family, it was a no brainer for us to go through with it but man, that could’ve been two fantastic vacations for us for what they cost. But she’s alive and well, and in the end, that’s what matters.

    Enjoy pet-sitting!

  4. September 17, 2010 8:48 pm

    That’s a lot of animals! I hope your son enjoys them.

    We once house/cat sat for our friends on their honeymoon. Their cat ran away for three days and when we saw a dead cat that looked exactly like theirs at the bottom of their subdivision we were sure their cat had been hit by a car. Two days before the couple returned so did the cat. We later learned that their cat frequently went out on multiple day walkabouts. Aaaaggghhh!

  5. September 17, 2010 10:34 pm

    Watch out for the calico. She’s wily, I’d bet anything. =>

  6. September 19, 2010 12:06 am

    Really, I can only handle cats. Because they’re independent. I am just too much a cat in my own nature. (Funny I married a man who’s more like a dog. It’s like the ultimate in what love can conquer.) But no animals at our house. We almost kept a cat, but my hubs is too allergic.

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