National Pet Month: What having a pet really means

While I have gotten to see pets of all kinds 6 days a week for many years, and I talk every day about how great it is to have pets, every once in a while, I have an experience that reminds me of just how important pets are in some people’s lives. Yes – many pets are cuddly and cute and love to snuggle, and others are beautiful to look at. But for some animal owners, their pets have much more significance than that. I was reminded of this recently when I visited a single friend living alone in a small apartment in New York City. Although she had told me frequently about how much she loved her pet rabbit, Jessie, I didn’t realize just what this rabbit meant to her until I saw the two of them together. While I sat in her living room, sipping coffee, I watched my friend with the rabbit on her lap, talking to her softly and stroking her gently, as she explained she’d had Jessie for more than 12 years and that even though Jessie doesn’t hop as high as she used to or play as much as she did when she was younger, this rabbit means everything to her. Every morning, she feeds Jessie her favorite vegetables and hay, cut into smaller pieces than she used to, now that she is a little older and chews more slowly. Every day, as my friend leaves her house to go out, she says, “Bye-bye, Jessie. Mommy’s going out. See you later,” and Jessie hears these word as a cue for her to scamper off to her cage in the bedroom, where she waits faithfully for her “mother” to return home. Every evening, my friend arranges a towel on the floor by the couch, where Jessie stretches out, as my friend works on her computer or watches TV. Jessie is her constant companion, her steadfast friend, her loyal roommate. My friend has seen Jessie through injuries and aging, skin disease and dental problems, while Jessie has been there for my friend through break-ups with boyfriends, loss of a job, even breast cancer treatment. This rabbit is more than just a pet to this friend; she represents stability in her life. She is there for my friend every night when she comes home and every morning when she wakes up. My friend provides Jessie with the necessities in life – food and water; a safe, comfortable, clean place to sleep – and Jessie offers her affection without judgment, companionship without demands. While they do not talk in the same spoken language, they communicate better than some human family members do. Jessie is not just a pet to my friend, but a true family member who is unique and irreplaceable.

This special bond doesn’t apply just to people with mammals as pets. A client of mine – an older woman with a red-eared slider turtle – has this same bond with her reptile. Magoo, a 28-year-old male turtle, has lived with this now elderly client for all of his life – in her bath tub! When the turtle isn’t in the tub, he wanders around the house from room to room, occasionally stopping to sun himself on the window seat in the kitchen, as his owner eats her breakfast. They have had the same routine for more than 2 decades: up at 6am for a swim in the tub and a meal of turtle pellets with a couple of jumbo shrimp or a few slices of deli meat (not what we recommend for turtles these days but what my client has always fed Magoo for 28 years – so why should she change now?). Then the owner takes her toast and coffee at the breakfast table, while Magoo basks on the window seat. Then it’s back in the tub for an afternoon swim, followed by a nap on the living room rug, as his owner watches soap operas on TV. My client rarely leaves her house or has visitors, so Magoo is her main companion. Magoo doesn’t speak but faithfully comes when his owner calls him and definitely reacts when he sees her. In caring for her turtle, my client has a purpose and keeps going, even though the rest of the world seems to have forgotten her. Magoo will likely outlive his owner, and his owner has already willed him to a friend in case she dies first. Until then, they will likely be sharing breakfast daily by the window seat – a special meal that means as much to his owner as it does to Magoo. So, if you love your pet and wonder whether other people feel about their pets as strongly as you do about yours, I think the answer is clear. My rabbit owning friend and Magoo’s mom certainly do.

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