When I was a teenager, I used to dream of having a little grey cat named Shadow. I imagined Shadow to be a boy – a Velcro-kitty who stuck by me night and day, slept with me, followed me to look out the window, kept me company while I did my homework.
When I think back, it’s clear that in so many ways, my cat Avery is not so far off from that dream. He’s not a solid grey as I’d imagined Shadow, but he is a muddy brown one, striped since he’s a tabby, with a ridiculously cute white-spotted belly. He follows me around the house and complains when I’m not in the same room as he is, keeps me company while I work, and will whine stretched out on his back in the most adorable way for me to come pet him.
Picture from post Backlogged
It’s strange to say, but even with all the similarities there have been between my imagined cat and my real, present day one, I don’t feel there’s much overlap between my conception of Shadow and Avery. I think the majority of the distinction comes down to Avery’s personality. Somehow Shadow feels completely different to Avery – and likely will feel very different from any pet I’ll ever have. I’d simply imagined him being too one-dimensional, and thus Shadow will never feel anything like a real cat.
I never had a pet growing up, not even a hamster. My bother would beg and beg for one. He really wanted a dog, but insisted he’d settle for a hamster – anything furry! I saved my breath. I knew there was no point, so never bothered. My mom was absolutely convinced animals were worse than pointless to have around the house – all they’d do is make extra work for her around the house, and leave more things for her to clean up. Why would we (or anyone) ever want to adopt one?
Of course, she’s a changed woman now. It took one very special cat to transform her un-recognizably into a pet lover. She’s become your stereotypical pet parent who can’t imagine being separated from her feline friend for more than a couple weeks at a time. Give her pet over to live with my brother or I so she can travel? No way. She’d rather live with her cat than do extended travelling in her retirement. I often joke that she likes her cat, Walker, better than my brother and I. But while it’s more truth than joke, I personally love this, as the change he’s brought into her life has been brilliantly positive and healthy for her mental health. That little cat has managed to pull her out of her own head space into the present and done her so much good already, it’s impossible for anyone to deny.
Which brings me back to the point I was making in the most roundabout way possible – I don’t think I had a good conception of what pets were really like since I’d had no firsthand experience with pets growing up. Sure, I’d met and interacted with plenty of other people’s pets. People’s dogs, a cat or two, even a few hamsters. Then when Thomas and I moved into our first house, we adopted a pet snake; but still, this didn’t completely correct my impression of pets, probably because we really didn’t interact with her enough, and just typically observed her with fascination and interest.
Picture from post Snake Smile
I feel like my idea of pets before I had them was they were like animate stuffed animals. Like they were things you’d observe and be entertained by, and love like a teddy bear or personal possession you never wanted to let go of. But they aren’t. They’re a lot more like people than things, and though I could understand this on a conceptual level, and may even have it told you straight if asked directly which pets were more like, it’s obvious by my shallow imagining of what Shadow would be like that the idea didn’t really sink in for me.
Pets, especially ones with enormous personalities like dogs and cats, are more like people than those of us who had never lived with pets growing up may have been able to imagine.
A dog isn’t just a happy, friendly, and hyperactive little fur ball you enjoy petting a few times a year when you go visit your friend’s home. This dog is likely magical and lights up his owner’s day through interactions, but also is a terror and annoys the living daylights out of his owner during other.s There’s so much more to a pet than simply the fact that he can be petted, and that he needs to be fed and looked after as though he’s a doll. I could list a bunch of quirks that would make this dog feel more “real” – every afternoon when his dad watches sports on TV, he falls asleep in his lap and drools all over his leg; every morning he wakes up his mom with a slobbery “hello” while happily barking for breakfast; every so often he’ll bark at the back gate, be let out, and run around in circles until he’s exhausted, then fall over and lie in the sun; his owners once house sat for another dog for a week, and once that dog owner’s came back to pick him up, he cried for a week straight at odd hours by the front door. As a teenager who’d never hand personal experience owning a pet, would have heard these stories and been endeared. But I wouldn’t have felt how they all fit in together. I wouldn’t have felt there was much more to this dog, enormous depth of personality – to an extend it would’ve just felt like a bunch of unrelated cute moments.
Now, things are pretty different. Now I can see how these little moments are not very much individually, but stringed together, they paint a shallow picture of a deeper, whole personality. The difference in my knowledge of that dog versus the depth a pet owner, friend, or family member who has regular interaction with that pet is like the difference between a character on a TV show who only appears for a short cameo, versus the intimacy you feel having watched the same character for 7 seasons straight – and thus know and understand the intricacies of. I didn’t really think there was a lot more depth to be understood about pets. I just thought they were all like slightly longer cameos, but they’re not.
I know my pet better than all of my friends at this point. I know his habits, his personality quirks, very well, especially after so many years living with him.
I know that the second my husband and I head into the kitchen for dinner, he’s going to start crying for our attention for the entirety of the meal. I know that the only way to have him stop whining for attention is to have the dining room table in the main living room/bedroom space (we live in a studio), pull up a chair for him at the table, and have him eat a piece of kibble or two while watching us and essentially keeping us company eating. I understand that he wants extra cuddles every morning, and that if I don’t play with him enough during the day, I’m going to get a wake up call at 4 AM because he suddenly has so much energy he can’t contain it, and he needs my help getting it out. I know that even though he absolutely hates everything we eat besides tuna, he’s going to want to smell what we’ve got in our hands, even if it’s the very same thing I eat every single morning for breakfast – a banana – which he recoils at the smell of. I know when it’s sunny he’s going to get whiny more often, because he absolutely adores being petted while he’s sprawled out in the sun. I know sometimes when he wants attention he’ll simply moan, off and on for up to an hour, even though he could just as easily jump into my lap right when he wants the attention, and if I place him in my lap he always sits happily being petted. I know a lot of things about him, and while no, he isn’t as complex as a human being, I know his complexities a lot more than most of the other humans in my life.
Whenever I look back at my idea of Shadow, I can’t help but feel there’s something of a void, an emotional disconnect between myself and that cat. If I’d adopted a grey cat and named him Shadow, maybe I wouldn’t have noticed this void, because the process of discovering that cat’s personality gradually would’ve altered the original, flat idea I had of Shadow. It may have felt like I was simply filling in between the lines I’d originally created. But a direct comparison between Avery and Shadow leaves me feeling like I understand why some people without pets just don’t “get” the relationship pet people have with their furry friends. I certainly didn’t, even though likely I thought I did. It’s a hard thing to really imagine accurately, and the reality truly can be enormously different from the idea of pet ownership.
Picture from post Walker Sniffing at the Camera
The reality is deeper, the pet is always more complex than the idea or the little stories of him or her that are told. You may like somebody else’s pet and enjoy spending time with him or her, but living with that pet is likely very different from the few interactions you’ve had with him or her here or there. It’s like meeting a person for the first time versus living with them. Like knowing someone from school on a superficial level versus getting to know them on a deeper level and becoming their friend. There’s a huge lot of personality to fill behind what’s immediately seen and felt, and as humans we know that about other humans. We know that relationships can get to a much more meaningful level with humans if we put in the time and that there is usually ever so much more intricacy to another human being than you could’ve originally imagined. You would never assume that there’s no further depth to another human being than you could wrap your head around after one day of superficially meeting that person. The same should be thought of a pet.
And yes, the more you hear stories about a friend’s pet, the more you may feel like you know him or her. And the more you will know that pet – just the same way as you would know a friend of a friend if your mutual friend kept telling you about the other human in their life; but if you’d never met them, or met them briefly, and didn’t have much firsthand experience with them personally, you still don’t know the in the same way your mutual friend does, and you would never suppose you did. Through secondhand stories, you can certainly begin to fill the gap in understanding a human’s complexity, the same is true about short interactions with them, but you would never doubt there’s likely to still be one heck of a lot more than the superficial, and if you were to be thrown in a situation where you had to live with them, that you’d obviously get to know them far better than you ever could have through stories and short meet-ups.
We don’t typically think the same way about pets – until we have them and feel firsthand that they really aren’t simple things that we can completely understand in a few meet-ups at all. They’re not just cuddly or cool creatures that hang around your house and do things you can watch for entertainment. They’re like people. And so pets are family members – not like family members, they are family members, they merge into the household as though they’re infants – simple personality-wise compared to a full grown human adult, but much closer to people than they are to stuffed animals or playthings.
Now, obviously not everybody who had no firsthand experience with pets growing up is likely to be as dissociated from the true reality of pet ownership like me. But if any of what I originally thought sounds anything like your current thoughts about pets to you, just realize – there’s a lot more depth to the fur balls that you’ve yet to see.