This is a column of mine from 2011. However, the topic has been on my mind lately as I see more and more patients who neglect their own well being in favor of their pets.

(Incidentally, this column has the distinction of generating the most immediate hate-mail of anything I can recall writing in years!)


Animals are wonderful, but they just aren’t people!

My Greenville News column from yesterday.

We have five dogs and two cats. They are standard-issue canines and felines. We enjoy their company. We expect the dogs to kill rats, frighten snakes, chase coyotes, bark at strangers and generally to hold the porch in place against the random disappearance of gravity. The cats are for entertainment and otherwise useless. They leave hair-balls on narrow counters, shed and keep their kids awake by rubbing bristly kitty faces against them, all night long, in ecstacies of purring and love. So they are tolerable despite their cat proclivities.

I’ve had many animals down the years: a Shetland pony, a parakeet, various cats, dogs, hamsters and fish. But one thing I know is that none of my pets were ever more important than the humans in my life. And none of my family ever put their pets before me. Though I did wonder about my grandmother’s Chihuahuas, whose sole function was to eat fried chicken necks, shiver and growl at me in their little blanket-lined laundry baskets, dreaming of the Mexican desert in their West Virginia home. Still, she would have chosen me over them.

But in our society we have, officially, crossed the line on our relationship with pets. It’s an odd kind of devotion that treats animals as human. And it reflects an upending of values and priorities. Pets are now elevated above humanity, in part because ‘after all, they’re innocent!’ Animals then, through no intent or capacity of their own, wield power and maintain a mystique that is troubling.

If you fall into a river, a stranger might hesitate to help. The same person might well jump in for their own Golden Retriever, who is after all, ‘part of the family!’

This change in our thinking has other ramifications. It leads sick persons to refuse hospitalization so that they can go home to feed the dog or cat, who ‘can’t be alone.’

It manifests in the family which obsessively adopts every animal that crosses their path, caring for twenty dogs, thirty cats, five donkeys, two horses and a psychotic llama in renal failure. ‘They’re my babies, you know!’

The problem is that for one thing, the animals aren’t their babies (science fortunately hasn’t gone there yet). And for another, the proud parents of all God’s critters frequently can’t afford insurance, medications, vacations or much of anything else because all of their money ‘goes to the dogs.’

Tragically, many people who who now adore and worship their pets are enslaved to them. It happens with all forms of idol worship; it controls but does not reward. They will not visit grand-children because the dog is too mean and bites the kids. They cannot leave the dog alone because ‘he gets upset.’ They cannot leave town because the cat gets depressed, or has end-stage heart disease and might die (an eventuality difficult to avoid). These couples will take separate vacations so that someone is always with their beloved pet. (‘He gets really angry when we board him, you know!’)

Meanwhile their old, and/or sick pet does less and less. Its illness worsens, it cannot see, can barely walk, cannot control its bodily functions and may even act aggressively for no obvious reason.

Please believe me when I say that I understand affection for pets. We had two puppies die some years ago, and I cried like a crazy person as I buried them. When our beloved old dog Ruger developed a brain tumor, we all huddled around him during his seizures, and tried to keep him as comfortable as possible.

But never would I have considered putting his needs above the needs of my wife, my children, my parents; even my friends. Or for that matter, my own mental or physical health.

And for me to even entertain the thought that I might one day forgo my grandchildren, my very line on earth, so that Spot, Fluffy, Fang or old Paint wouldn’t ‘feel alone,’ well it simply defies my imagination.

These are strange days indeed, and getting stranger all the time. But no human should be denied a normal life, or impoverished, in order to meet the imagined emotional needs of a pet or the physical needs of more creatures than they can afford.

And no one, however well-intentioned, should miss out on the special times or daily joys of their Homo Sapien loved ones, in order to obsessively care for an aging, dying or simply spoiled beast.

Call me cold and uncaring, but animals just aren’t people.

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