Our pets are not baby substitutes, but . . .

Are our pets baby substitutes? We have talked about this before, and my answer to anyone who says, “Well, at least you have your dog,” is that it’s not the same, but recent events have made me think about this more deeply than ever.

My dog Annie has been in the veterinary hospital since Christmas. Because nothing local was open during the Christmas weekend, I took her to Corvallis, 55 mountain-road miles from where I live. The Willamette Veterinary hospital is incredibly busy. Due to Covid, people can’t go inside with their pets. I have now waited in my car in the parking lot for 12 hours spread over three different occasions and waited for phone calls every minute of every day and night. I constantly wonder if the vet will tell me it’s hopeless and recommend that she be euthanized. I constantly fantasize that the vet will tell me Annie is up and walking, hallelujah.

Day after day, they say she’s “about the same.”

Until Christmas afternoon, she was having a great time with me and “Auntie Pat.” She shared our Christmas food, went for a walk, and lay between us enjoying our company. Then she went to get up and collapsed. Got up, collapsed again. Somehow, falling again and again, she made it to the back yard, where she lay soaked in the rain and refusing to move until my neighbors helped me get her into the car. Christmas was so over as I sped in the dark to Corvallis.

At almost 13, after two knee surgeries, Annie has severe arthritis, but her main problem is something called Vestibular Disease, a sort of doggy vertigo that makes it impossible for her to find her balance. At first, she looked like she’d had a stroke, her face scrunched up on one side, her body falling to the left. She wouldn’t eat or drink, just kept whining and crying. Now she’s eating and drinking and acting much like herself, but she still can’t walk on her own. She has worn a catheter to urinate, which led to a urinary tract infection. She has bed sores from lying on her left side so much. Are we just putting off the inevitable?

The doctor asked me to buy a “Help ‘em Up” harness that lifts under her shoulders and hips When I brought it, I could visit. Wonderful. I would be able to see for myself whether Annie was still Annie. I got up early and drove to Corvallis, then called from the car to say I was there. An aide whisked the harness away, saying she wasn’t sure about a visit. But I could wait. I waited. All morning.

I watched the woman in the next car be reunited with her little dog. The dog licked her face, sniffed her all over, and settled on her shoulder, much like a baby, finally going to sleep, safe and content with “Mom.” But not Mom. His mother was a dog. The woman is his human, the person he trusts to take care of him. Watching them, I sobbed. I hadn’t seen my dog in 12 days and the way things were going, I wouldn’t see her that day either. They kept telling me they were too busy to arrange a socially-distanced visit.

At 12:30, I got them to let me in to use the restroom and broke their Covid protocol to accost the receptionist and beg to see my dog. She went into a back room to check. Maybe later today, no promises, she said. I went back to my car and cried some more. I felt cold, hungry, and hopeless.

In late afternoon, I was thinking I’d have to drive home without a visit when they told me to come in. Annie and I met in a little sitting room where the workers put blankets on the floor and brought her dinner. It took two of them to get her there, using the harness. Three hours of driving and five hours of waiting were all worth it just to hug my Annie and tell her I loved her, to stare into those big brown eyes. She looked better than when I brought her in, but she was not ready to go home. Maybe a few more days with the harness . . . God knows how much money this is costing me, but I don’t care.

This morning while I was in the shower, the doctor left a message that Annie is about as good as she’s going to get and is ready to go home. I have appointments and work to do today, and I don’t know how I would get my dog out of the car or into the house. The folks at the veterinary hospital don’t seem to understand that it’s just me here. No husband, no kids, no roommate. The four other people who live on this street are gone during the day. My friends, mostly older, are hiding from Covid. I don’t know what to do.

She’s just a dog, some might say. But she’s my Annie, my person, my partner, and my dependent. Because I am a childless widow with no family nearby, Annie is the only flesh and blood mammal I can hug freely and with whom I can be completely myself. I have cared for her from 7 weeks to old age. We have been through so much together.

Last night, I thought about what our pets are to us, what Annie is to me. I had watched an old episode of the TV show “Parenthood.” Talk about triggers—everybody is dealing with their parent-child relationships, and it just made me cry. Somehow I felt like a worried-sick parent as I watched. I am not Annie’s mother. But I have been responsible for her care since she was a puppy. She depends on me. She loves me, but she does not take care of me. She is my companion, but not an equal one. I control the keys, the leash, and the can opener. “Mother” may be the wrong word, but it’s something like parenting.

Whatever you call it, she’s an integral part of my life, the one I greet in the morning and say good night to when I go to bed. Child. Best friend. Partner. Roommate. Old Auntie. Pet. Pride and joy. A human is not supposed to be all these things wrapped into one body. You’re either a child or a best friend, a partner or a pet. But a dog can be all these things. Annie is.

The vet hospital “hold” recording that I have heard over and over refers to us as “pet parents.” The receptionist has asked if I’m “Annie’s person.” They don’t say “owner,” which I suppose would be accurate, too, although I hate the sound of it. I did pay for Annie, just like I paid for my car, but it’s a lot different.

Whatever we are to be called, a dozen of us sat for hours in that parking lot in the rain waiting to have our dogs taken care of or waiting to be reunited. Sitting there, I remembered my mother coming to get us after school on rainy days, the safe feeling when my brother, the neighbor kids, and I were in the car heading home.

If I bring Annie home tomorrow, I will have to cancel my few outings for the foreseeable future. I don’t know how I will manage by myself, but at least she will be on this side of the mountain and we’ll be together.

I have gone on too long about my own problems. The country is going crazy this week, and that is very frightening. But the subject of the day is our pets. Mine is a dog, but cats, rats, gerbils and llamas count, too. What are our pets to us and what are we to them? I still say they are not a baby substitute. For many, many reasons, it’s not the same. So, how do they fit into the picture for you? I welcome your comments.

12 thoughts on “Our pets are not baby substitutes, but . . .

  1. I’m so sorry you and Annie have been through this? Our pets are not our children, I agree. But they are still members of our family. As you say, we are responsible for them, and they rely on us, and we love them dearly! It’s been almost ten years since we lost our second cat, and I still miss them. (We had them for 17 and 18 years respectively). Sending hugs.

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  2. My goodness Sue, you and Annie have been through a lot. She is so fortunate you are her pet parent. I, too, am an animal lover and currently have 4 cats and 1 dog. 2 biological – 3 inherited. 🙂 Two cats I adopted, two we “inherited” when my mom passed away, and our dog, Theo, is our beloved granddog when my stepson moved to Colorado without him almost 2 years ago. I do find my furbabies are a way for me to use my “maternal” instincts and as I get older wonder if I’m better suited for animals than little humans. I’m glad Annie is home and hope she continues to get better. Thank you for continuing to write.

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  3. “A human is not supposed to be all these things wrapped into one body. You’re either a child or a best friend, a partner or a pet. But a dog can be all these things.”

    I love this. It sums up so much. I never liked to call my pets my “fur babies” but I did regard my pets as something extremely special in my life. We said “goodbye” our remaining dog a few months ago. It was time. He was always a difficult dog and while the whole thing was sad – and we do really miss his sweet presence – we recovered quickly. You don’t do that with children.

    But sometimes there are special animals that really will leave a hole in your heart. We had a few over the years and you clearly do with Annie. Best wishes on her recovery and for more shared joy.

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  4. Omigosh– I’m so sorry for what you and Annie have been going through. My Zoey (14 year old golden retriever who is mostly deaf, mostly blind now, and the definite love of my life) had an episode of vestibular disease a few months ago– it was SO scary, because it does sort of mimic the behavior of what I think I stroke in a dog would look like– I was lucky to have someone with me for the drive to the emergency vet during which I held Zoey in the back seat and talked to her nonstop about how she is my very best friend, all the things that make her so wonderful, and how every day with her is the best day ever. I was relieved to find out it wasn’t a stroke– we were able to take her home that same night, and she recovered about 99% over the next few days with the help of some OTC motion sickness meds. She still has an occasional head tilt (which is a def sign of vestibular issues– but even that only happens once in a great while now. The emergency vet said vestibular disease is affectionately called ‘old dog disease’. (I didn’t find that name to be charming or comforting.) I am lucky and grateful that she has been fine since then. I hope Annie comes home ASAP and that you’re able to care for her– I suspect just the comfort of being at home where things are familiar, and with care from you– the center of her world– will be SO good for her.

    Regarding the topic at hand….. I don’t feel my dogs are substitutes for children. (Even if I had children, I’d still want to have dogs, too!) My dogs are living, emotional creatures with hearts and minds and souls, who depend on me– and for whom I provide care, the best life I can give them, and a shared, loving life experience. I know it’s not the same as children, but there are elements of my relationships with my dogs that have theoretical similarities to a parent-child relationship– so I think that in addition to their special and unique roles in my life, my dogs are likely a bit of a salve, from time to time, for my childlessness. I love my dogs in a way that is as close as I can imagine it would feel like to love a child– tho I know it’s not the same. I can really only imagine what that would be like– and I am grateful to have dogs on which I can lavish attention and love 🙂

    Please do keep us posted on Annie’s progress— sending best wishes for better days for her (and you) soon!

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    • Thank you for this great comment. Annie has taken considerably longer to get over her Vestibular Disease. I brought her home today. She is still quite lopsided–I have to hold her up with a harness–but she is otherwise herself again, and it is so good to be together. I wasn’t sure that would ever happen again.

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      • I’m glad she’s home! 🙂 Zoey’s first few days at home required a lot of vigilance– she could stand (but not easily)– she zigzagged [and sometimes careened a bit] around the house like a hairy little drunk– so I was careful to be a human buffer for her when she was on the move, so she didn’t run into things. (She also has cataracts in both eyes, which didn’t make it easier.) But even during those ‘hairy little drunk, days, she was happy and comfortable. I was grateful when she was mostly back to normal.

        I am hopeful for you that Annie will continue to improve!!!

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  5. I am so happy to read in your comment that Annie is home! That was a long time for you two to be separated from each other, even if she was in good hands with the vet. I am so happy for you both that she is home. My dog was my world to me. I would’ve waited all day long crying in my car to see her for just 30 precious seconds. She wasn’t my child. I never taught her to read or took her to a sports team practice. But I did stroke her head when she didn’t feel well and she was always always always there to give me 100% unconditional love. No, our pets aren’t our children. We get to be caregivers and love givers to them, but it is not the same. Two different experiences (pet parenting and human parenting) but with some similarities.

    Oh gosh, I am just so glad to read Annie is home! ❤

    (Also, I instantly recognized the Help 'Em Up Harness. That's what I used with my dog while she was recovering from bilateral ACL tears. What a great product!)

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  6. […] Vestibular Disease, a sort of doggy vertigo, knocked her flat on Christmas Day. (Read about it in the Dec. 28 post) She spent the next two weeks at the Willamette Veterinary Hospital in Corvallis, 55 miles from here. Due to COVID, I could not go inside with her. I could only sit in my car in the parking lot with all the other pet people. I finally got to see her last Wednesday after waiting five hours for the busy staff to bring her out for a socially distanced visit. I cried a lot that day. (Read more about that at my Childless by Marriage blog.) […]

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  7. Wow that sounds so frightening. I know the difference between my pets and children and at this stage of my life I’ll take my pets any day 🤣
    It’s hard to see them suffer and to be away for so long is heartbreaking. I’m glad you’ve been reunited.

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  8. While working as an in home Dialysis tech, I met a little shih Tzu Named Fanci Noel. Her human Mommy had just passed away three months prior and now Daddy was on Dialysis. The very first day that I entered the home, Fanci seemed delighted to meet me. I found her to be a very sweet dog and very smart. We soon became best friends. She followed me everywhere I went in the house. I talked to her constantly and we played games, went for walks, I fed her and let her pick her treats from the “Dog Drawer.” I was there for about 3 years before moving to CA. I missed that little dog as though she were mine. Two years passed and I received word that her Daddy was dying and he had turned her over to a rescue shelter. I was so upset. I called to talk to him and mentioned I would have taken her if he had told me. We both got on the phone and after a few days we had tracked her down. The shelter was more than happy to help me get her on a plane from Texas to CA. When I picked her up at the airport, she was happy to see me but I could tell she was also very sad and missed her Daddy. She was completely traumatized from being with strangers. She had come to his home as a baby and never lived anywhere else, anywhere but there. She was now 16 and nearly blind. All I could do was give her all my love. Fanci lived another year and a half before she left us. She never stopped looking for him though.
    It saddens me that people don’t realize how attached animals can get. They do see us as their parents. To adopt a pet and then decide you don’t want it must be devastating. I would like to launch a worldwide campaign to educate and enlighten everyone to the the truth that humankind has been overlooking something very important about our animal friends.

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