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.