How to Be a Better Pet Owner: Finalist 11

by Gajan Retnasaba on June 5, 2013

My best friend is the best thing that has ever happened to me. She is always welcoming and sweet, and she alone is able to rid me of all of my worries with something as simple as a snuggle. I look forward to bedtime, because she sleeps wrapped around by head like a towel. Her name is Honey, and she is an eight-year-old orange tabby cat, who came to me six years ago scarred from a deeply abusive home. Stress and fear had caused her to rip out much of the fur on her belly and legs, a neurotic behavior that continued for years. For a long time, she was terrified of everything, and unreceptive to any type of affection. It took me a great deal of time, effort and many heaping spoons of cat food to get her to trust me, and a few more for her to quit self-mutilating. Today, Honey is entirely furry and living an outgoing and sociable life with me in Fort Collins as I complete my undergraduate degree and prepare for veterinary school. The challenge of working to get Honey away from the fear of abuse is a remarkable reminder of how important it is to be a good pet owner, and the importance of remaining attentive and compassionate towards the animal that is sharing your life and your home.

I will admit that my experience with Honey is an extreme case, and that it is not generally required of all truly good pet owners to spend years of their lives working to attain some level of normalcy. However, every second that I have spent with her has helped me develop into a better pet owner in general. She has taught me to be gentler, kinder and more empathetic, not just with cats and domesticated animals, but with all living things, including humans. Her mannerisms have allowed me to see animal behaviors with a more compassionate eye which I believe is a crucial component of being a genuinely good pet owner. It is fundamental to remember that animals have absolutely no say in who becomes their owner. They cannot tell you if you are being too loud, too rough, too obnoxious or too boisterous and it generally takes a decently intuitive person to be able to tell when an animal is feeling uncomfortable. For this reason, it is important to always remain on the gentle, quiet side. If this is not always possible, because of roommates, friends or other animals, give your pet a safe haven where they can retreat if they feel the need.

Before Honey and I moved to Fort Collins, I was living at home with my parents, my older brother and Honey, who remained relatively shy. She rarely left my room, and when she did, she acted as though she was embarking on a life-threatening mission that required extreme stealth—creeping around, crouched low to the ground and sprinting back at the slightest disturbance. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Honey was wary of the noise created by a house of five gigantic, inattentive people. In an attempt to compensate, I created a sanctuary for her in my room. This sanctuary was basically a warm, soft bed and blanket tucked within my closet with the door cracked just wide enough for her alone to sneak through. In having the option to escape, Honey was allowed the opportunity to experience comfort in a house that was otherwise generally uncomfortable, and I think that this was critical to allow her to feel some level of permanence in her new home. Honey’s demeanor was immediately and markedly improved.

It wasn’t long after I met Honey that I began to notice a pattern of strange and bothersome habits. Most notably was Honey’s tendency to rip mouthfuls of fur from any reachable regions of her body. At one point, it was so injurious that Honey looked like she had been completely shaved from the waist down. Unfortunately, this did not cease following the creation of Honey’s sanctuary. It failed to end when I attempted to create a reassuring and aromatic environment for her with catnip and calming sprays, and it did not cease after years of love and affection, after she began to show signs of actual contentment. I truly believe that Honey’s self-mutilation was a physical manifestation of her inability to cope with a difficult past, rather than the signs of some sort of illness or allergy . She was still struggling with the harsh reminders of what humans were capable of, and this made me unbelievably sad. I knew that Honey was as safe as was physically possible—I could not even imagine hurting her and I knew that no one in my family would either. It had been years since anyone had laid a finger on her, and yet she was still expressing distrust. Honey’s lingering fear underscores the importance of patience when it comes to pet owners and their pets.

Patience is important in more ways than one.  I knew that Honey’s fear of humans, like many other animal mannerisms, could be diminished over time given patience and the right kind of care and with time, it was. Patience is also critical on a day-to-day basis. Like humans, pets tend to have distinct personalities and specific preferences. Honey follows a strict schedule, and becomes visibly upset when I do not adhere—breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and catnip must be given at the same time everyday. There have been times when she has driven me nearly over the edge with her clockwork whining, and it would be ridiculously easy to get angry with her or any demanding pet for that matter. However, I find that it is important to constantly remind yourself that these creatures rely on humans for everything. Hunger, thirst, bathroom desires and all other basic necessities of life are allowed only on a human’s terms—our pets are entirely at our mercy.  This dynamic requires a significant deal of patience from both ends. Pet owners must be patient, avoiding unnecessary irritation when dealing with a demanding pet. It is also important that humans recognize their critical role in an animal’s life, and exercise the appropriate level of care. Likewise, pets must contend with the knowledge that owners cannot always obey their every demand.

In addition to neurotic self-mutilation, I also began to notice that Honey was coughing. At the time, I had no idea what the implications of a coughing cat were, and I initially failed to employ the proper amount of concern. Occasional small coughing fits would resolve within a few minutes and Honey would continue with her day as normal. However, after a while, it became clear that something more was going on. Honey’s retching fits began waking her up in the middle of the night, and some lasted as long as an hour, and were often accompanied by clear discomfort and subsequent insomnia. Shortly after the start of these late-night fits, Honey began vomiting blood. I was horrified, and rushed her to the veterinarian, who told me that it was possible that Honey had cancer. My devastation was insurmountable—she was only six years old and I felt like I had failed her for allowing her discomfort to continue for as long as it had. X-rays, blood work and upwards of three hundred dollars were placed into the diagnosis, and it was determined that Honey had asthma. I was extremely relieved that Honey did not have cancer, but I was also worried—how long had I been unaware of and insensitive to her discomfort? I was afraid that Honey would have an asthma attack while I was away, which could take her life. I have not yet overcome this concern, despite the fact that Honey is on regular steroids and has not had an asthma attack in over three years. Additionally, the very medicine treating her holds a great deal of potential harm—steroids are known for their deleterious effects when used chronically, and Honey has to take them every few days for the rest of her life. This knowledge has been the catalyst for me to spend hundreds of dollars every year on bi-annual veterinary visits and blood work. Many people may find this to be superfluous, but a good pet owner recognizes the importance of regular preventative veterinary visits. Not all animals have such obvious symptoms of illness as Honey did. Cats are particularly infamous for their ability to hide sicknesses until it is too late to do anything about them. I do not believe that any animal should have to suffer silently for any amount of time, especially given the vast realm of veterinary knowledge and preventative diagnostics readily available to pet owners.

Two and a half years ago, my nephew was born. His arrival was extremely exciting because up to that point, I had been the youngest in my family and I was eighteen—my sister is a decade and a half older than me and my brother is just shy of a decade. I had very little experience with babies, and I was appalled to discover that it was not intuitive for him to be respectful to animals. From the time he was tiny and barely able to walk, he would struggle to get his hands on any animal he could, which almost invariably ended in the pulling of fur, hitting and/or biting. Even more surprising for me was my sister’s apparent inability to discipline him after such occurrences. My earliest memories involve animals as peers and friends (it wasn’t until much later that my mother informed me that I, too, had been a tyrant to my pets). However, from a young age, I had been trained by animal-loving parents to feel that animal abuse of any shape or form is a great and severely punishable offense, and I believe that this greatly influenced my compassion for animals. This imparted wisdom emphasizes the importance of good pet owners sharing a love and respect for animals with new generations. My nephew has taught me many things since he was born, but the most important thing is that little kids, even from a very young age, are incredibly impressionable. For the most part, they do as they see, and it took more than scoldings and punishment after he mistreated an animal to get him to quit. I began actively attempting to instill in him a compassion for animals. Allowing him to watch me with animals, and physically showing him how to be gentle, kind and attentive to the sentiments of animals, I was able to educate him on the proper treatment of animals. This has been invaluable, not only for my pets who no longer have to live in fear of my nephew’s tiny toddler hands, but for my nephew who will (hopefully) continue on as a knowledgeable and empathetic human. It is the responsibility of good pet owners to train and educate young people, rather than remaining indifferent, to create a new generation of compassion.

Every pet is different. I believe that pets are as diverse and varied as humans, which would require individual care for each pet based on their unique needs and desires. I have never experienced a case quite as extreme as Honey, and despite my intense love for her, I hope that I never have to experience anything like it again. Avoiding such ruinous results requires knowledgeable, caring pet owners willing to put the time and energy into making their companion’s life the best that it can be. Animals have always been incredible sources of companionship for me, and creating a safe and happy world for them is an endeavor that is very dear to my heart. It is for this reason that I have devoted many years of my life to becoming a veterinarian, and I hope that someday I am able to make a visible difference for the animals that share our world.

C. Kandyba

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