A Lifetime of Pets

I am the eldest of my parents’ children; I have one brother four years younger than me. When I was born, my parents already owned a one-year-old female dog, a black lab and German shepherd mix named Jessie. They called her their “first child”, and she lived seventeen years, until I turned 16 after my sophomore year of high school. It was during those first two-thirds of my life that I began to realize just how much owning a pet meant to me. I came home from school every day and played with the dog, walked the dog, and frequently fell asleep with the dog, as the door to my room never quite closed right. Hours of my day were spent throwing sticks for (or sometimes chasing sticks with) this loving, caring animal. Even though, for most of my life, I’d wanted cats almost desperately, I still adored Jessie, and on my mother’s Facebook you could still find pictures of a small, fluffy ball with a small pink mass — a puppy and a baby, her and I.

Once I turned sixteen, Jessie passed not long after. My father and I were especially heartbroken — I, because I’d lived my whole life with her, and he, because she was the oldest, most venerable pet he’d ever owned. But not six months later, I begged my parents to get a cat. To my surprise, I came home from high school one day to discover my parents standing in our living room, holding the most adorable pair of furry animals I’d ever seen. Athena, a white-and-gray cat, and Cana, a black-and-grey tabby, were sisters — rescues that we’d adopted from a local shelter. They were not declawed, but had received shots and other appropriate care in the hands of the people working at the shelter.

Even now, those two are likely sitting (sleeping) on my bed, wondering when I’ll come home from college again. Having a pet is an experience like no other, and it’s one I’m loathe to ever give up in my life. But what, exactly, is the difference between adopting from a shelter, getting a pet from a pet store, or merely taking one in from outside — and what’s the issue with declawing?

Most readers will have heard of the term “puppy mills”. Puppy mills are organizations that exist to force dogs to breed to create as many puppies as possible, which they sell like any other product. Ignoring for a moment the callousness of such an act, these puppies go on to most larger retail stores like Petco. They’ve never had a real chance at normality in life, and are frequently the quirkiest of the lot. Puppies from puppy mills have a history of mental and physical health issues, usually stemming from lack of human interaction, close and cramped quarters, and constantly being surrounded by many other animals. Though these animals from such breeding facilities might be up-to-date on their shots and well-fed, they are not healthy, and have frequently been declawed.

But what’s the problem with declawing? Well, it’s been shown in several studies that removing an animal’s natural defenses makes it either more aggressive, or more shy and nervous, to compensate. Declawing, which is the same as cutting off a human’s fingers at the first knuckle, is an incredibly painful process that continues to pain the animal for years after the surgery. Not only that, but in removing the animal’s only real line of defense, it makes the animal vulnerable, and vulnerable animals are far more likely to lash out at those near them, usually pre-empted by fear. Follow the link above in this paragraph for advice on what to do instead of declawing your household pets.

Now, the next place to obtain a pet is from your local animal shelter. Pets picked up, or rescued, by shelters have a long-running stigma of being maladjusted, undesirable, or simply “bad”. These perfectly kind, loving pets sit around for much of their day waiting for someone to come by and give them a home. Many times, there is nothing wrong at all with said pets — a large majority of pets in shelters are from owner surrendering, where a person who can no longer care for an animal gives it to a shelter to be cared for. Jessie, Athena, and Cana — every pet I’ve owned in my life — has been from a shelter, and I cannot state how happy I am with the animals I’ve owned. This belief that animals from shelters are of lower quality, or are otherwise somehow inferior, is entirely undeserving. These pets are also usually kept up-to-date on shots and fed regularly, but frequently suffer the same issue as dogs and cats from pet stores — close quarters with many other animals.

The last place to adopt a pet from is to not really “adopt” it; rather, to take in a stray from outside. This is the most dangerous method, but can yield rewarding results. Stray animals — especially cats — have a far different mentality than household pets. Stray, or feral, animals fend for themselves in the wild until someone picks them up — either to bring to a shelter, or keep at home — and frequently, the animals know no other life. My grandmother always brought home strays, and had a large house of cats, dogs, and the occasional bird that she cared for constantly. Though the animals didn’t always get along, they loved my family every time we visited.

Taking in a feral animal comes with risks — the animal will not have any shots, nor will it be regularly fed or checked for ticks, fleas, or other infections or issues. It will not be adjusted at all to the regular company of a human, and it may spend most of its time (like a few of my grandmother’s shyer cats) hiding somewhere out of sight. Yet every animal someone takes in from outside is one fewer left to breed and cause more problems in the local area.

I cannot encourage someone enough to take in a pet from a shelter, or as a stray. Breeding mills are a societal problem that will not be fixed easily, but everyone can do their part to care for an animal that doesn’t have a real home.

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