Many people consider their pets to be a part of their family -- I can say for sure that I share that sentiment. Pets have always been a huge part my life, even from an extremely young age; I was born on October 8, 1991 and my Grandparents actually adopted a husky, named Bandit, who was born that exact same day and year. I grew up having cats, ferrets, rabbits, dogs and even a gecko (not all at once, but I did have most of these all at the same time)!
While I obviously loved all the pets we had growing up, I definitely had a few favorites. Beginning with Bandit...I mean, come on, we were literally birthday twins and grew up together! We had a very special bond that lasted right up until his passing. I would constantly sneak him his favorite snack -- graham cracker cookies -- and blame everything on him, even when we lived in different states. Another favorite of mine was a Tabby cat named Coconut (we had a thing for animals named after foods at this point in my life, like my favorite ferret, Chocolate). Coconut was attached to my hip; he even served as my own special alarm clock back in elementary school, waking me each morning at the same time. He slept next to me, played Barbie with me and wanted to be pet 24/7. He craved that constant attention; unfortunately, when we moved cross-country, we had to re-home him. We found a wonderful home, though, with a small child who promised to love him always; they were great together.
When I was in middle school, I decided that I wanted a Leopard Gecko, which would be the first pet that I was fully responsible for. I mean, my brother and I had helped take care of the ferrets and cats before this point, but this would be my pet. My Mom made me do a lot of research on how to take care of this particular type of Gecko and even had me write an essay. Yes, you read that correctly: I had to write her an essay on how to take care of a Leopard Gecko so that I would be fully prepared to do so. She didn't want me to get a pet and either be unable to take care of it or think, "This is too much work, I don't want this anymore." I'm thankful she did that, because it taught me early on that pets are hard work.
My Gecko's name was Cookie and she was such a sassy little thing. She would ride on my shoulders while I walked around the house and knew if she jumped down, she'd be eaten by one of my parents' Huskies (we had 3 of them at this time). Whenever I cleaned her cage, she would just sit on my bed. She was very laid back, or at least she was until my brother called her fat and she bit him (still laughing at the fact that he got bit by the only teeth she had, which are way in the back of their mouths). After that, she actually developed an eating disorder. To be fair, this probably wasn't because my brother called her fat, as this is actually fairly common for geckos to do for some reason, but I still blame him for it. Sorry, Frank! ;)
I just mentioned that, while I had Cookie, my family had some Huskies. One of those Huskies was actually part Chow Chow and his name was Otto. We were very connected, so much so that, when he passed, I got a memorial tattoo of him on my arm. He was one of the sweetest dogs ever and boy, did he have a personality. When he didn't want to go outside and you were calling his name, he would lean against the wall and pretend to be invisible. There was only one problem with his plan: he was orange, so he didn't blend in whatsoever.
I remember one time when my brother pissed Otto off (he called him peach instead of orange) and he just got up and left the room. My brother then walked into his bedroom to find Otto standing there; he stared right at Frank and proceeded to pee on his bed. It was hilarious to all of us (well, except to my brother). Otto would take pictures with me constantly and he actually smiled in them! He hated Weiner dogs for some reason, would run with me while I was on my rollerblades, chewed gum without swallowing it and slept by my door to keep me safe. Did I mention that he hated Weiner dogs? I could go on and on about this dog, but the point of this article is what being a pet parent has taught me, not me going on about my favorite pets. Some people think that animals cannot understand us, which might be true for all we know. The day that Otto was put down, though, I was visiting him and whispered that it was okay for him to let go. That, while I loved him, he didn't have to be in pain anymore. I hope he did understand me, if only so that he knew it was okay and that he was loved.
After I graduated College, I adopted my cat Shiner. This was the first pet that I had while living away from my parents' home; we instantly clicked and had the most special of bonds. I was forced to put Shiner down this past February, something that still devastates me. Just like with Otto, I also got a memorial tattoo of Shiner (a portrait of him on my calf). I called Shiner my sour patch kid because, just like the commercials, he'd go from being mean to being very sweet in a matter of seconds. He would bite your hand (like a "love bite," though) and then start to lick it. He loved to snuggle, but also loved to be vindictive; in other words, he was your typical cat. He'd greet me at the door every day -- I couldn't even go to the bathroom without him! If I shut the bathroom door, he would just paw at it. He cuddled me when I was sad, tolerated pictures with me and was best friends with my current Rottweiler mix, Roscoe.
I got Shiner when he was 3 years old, learning not too long afterward that his kidneys weren't in the greatest shape. By the time he was 8 years old, they were failing him altogether. We decided to make his last few months amazing by letting him have some milk, eat our leftovers, spend more time outside, etc. Eventually, though, it became apparent that Shiner was miserable. I decided that it would be selfish of me to force him to continue living in pain just so I could spend some more time with him. I made sure to get an ink print of his paw done before putting him down and also got some pretty amazing pictures with him thanks to my friends Kristian (@itsmeKristianG) and Carly (@cgreenbartlett). You can see a couple of those photos on my Twitter (@CSIHALEY) or Instagram (@haley8091) pages.
Having to put Shiner down is the one of the most traumatic things I've experienced in my personal life to date, even more so than my Diabetes diagnosis (which is saying something). I was there as a kid when my parents had to put down animals and have even been there for friends when they've had to do the same; seeing Shiner on that table and knowing I was the one who made that decision, though? That broke my heart into pieces. I still cry about that day sometimes and there's not a day that goes by that I don't miss him. He really was my best friend and, as I stated above, he was also my Rottweiler's best friend. We decided to adopt our current Great Dane puppy, Pepper, to help Roscoe grieve the loss of Shiner.
Roscoe and Pepper definitely keep me on my toes these days as a pet parent. Taking care of them is honestly like taking care of two completely opposite people. We adopted Roscoe at 6 months old and he was so easy: already potty-trained, very well behaved for the most part and probably one of the sweetest dogs ever. He reminds me a lot of Otto in that way. Roscoe chewed on a few things as a puppy, but other than that, he was relatively easy to train and is a breeze to take care of. Roscoe just turned 6 years old this past summer; these days, he can learn a trick in about 5 minutes (my favorite is "Bang, you're dead!"). Pepper, on the other hand, has been more than a handful to raise, even a nightmare at times. We adopted her at 8 weeks old and she loves to chew on my shoes, the floor, carpet, etc. She also loves to dig holes and eat her own poop, but we still love her. She's almost 10 months old now.
I hope you enjoyed hearing about my amazing pets! I've been fortunate to have so many special animals in my life over the years, it's great to reflect on them all. But now, for what this article is actually about: what being a pet parent has taught me. Taking care of pets, especially from a young age, has taught me a lot about life. I've learned responsibility and leadership, as well as time management and how to be flexible. My experiences have also taught me how to communicate better, how to forgive and forget and to live with compassion. I know how to appreciate the small stuff, how to share and have come to find out what unconditional love is and feels like. I'm sure that there are even more things that they've taught me, but what I just listed above is what sticks out to me the most.
The concept of responsibility should be an obvious one, especially because taking care of another living thing is very hard work! As a pet parent, you're responsible for fulfilling your pets' every want and need; just like a marriage, this relationship is meant to be in good health and bad, rich or poor, etc. You're responsible physically, emotionally, financially and more for this pet; do NOT get a pet if you cannot handle this responsibility (hence why my Mom made me write that essay). Having pets has also taught me leadership because, if you're in charge of them, you have to be their alpha. They'll neither listen to nor respect you otherwise. You need your pets to follow orders and behave, so you must be a leader. I also credit my Mom on teaching me how to be a leader in the eyes of my animals. This isn't a one and done thing, either; they may try to push you and take charge and you'll need to remind them who's in charge (not in an abusive way, though. Those who are abusive to animals are disgusting human beings who belong in jail!) Shiner definitely thought he was in charge at all times.
Pets will also quickly teach you how to properly manage your time -- my pets have certainly done that for me. Soon after adopting your pets, they'll quickly get on an eat, sleep, and poop schedule. At this point, my dogs wake me up more than my alarm clock does and when they want to go outside, they're going to let me know. After a while, it just becomes a habit. You can't hit snooze, because you have to get up, take them out, play with them, feed them, etc. It's a lot easier to do this during the week when you have to be up early for work anyway, but it's not so fun on the weekend when you're trying to sleep in!
When I say that my pets have taught me how to be flexible, I'm talking about when it comes to making plans. I've had to leave events early before to take care of my dogs or even head into work late because my cat got out and I needed to go find him. You must be flexible when it comes to money, too; sometimes, the money you were saving for a nice trip or a nice dinner has to go towards your pets' trip to the vet instead. That makes you both a flexible and responsible pet parent. Vet bills aren't cheap, but you sign up for those kinds of occasional expenses when you decide to become a pet parent. I'd also point out that this forces you to become more intelligent financially. Save money for those emergency vet bills and yearly costs, even if that means a couple fewer nights out -- it's worth it to keep your pets healthy!
I think another big lesson that being a pet parent taught me is how to communicate more effectively. It's not like talking to a person, where you can verify that you understand each other. You have to be patient with your animals and try to find the best way to communicate what you want. An example of this is using positive and negative reinforcements (but again, not in an abusive way). I had to learn through trial and error that yelling at my pets is not the most effective way to get through to them. Also, while they may do something that makes you upset (like throwing up on the couch), remember it's not their fault if they get sick. With that in mind, being a pet parent has also taught me to be patient, as well as how to forgive and forget. They're animals, they're going to chew on things or have accidents in the house. We must forgive and forget but also find a way to teach them that those things aren't okay.
Being a pet parent teaches us compassion as well, or at least I'd like to think it did that for me. Our pets are living animals who have emotions and feelings too; I can see in my Rottweiler's expression when he's upset. I've even seen videos of dogs crying on their owners' gravesites. Never assume that, because they're animals, they don't have feelings or deserve our compassion. While we're at it, though: we should also display the same compassion we show to our animals to other human beings. See how these lessons play off of one another? Don't sweat the small things so much, either. You only have your pet for so long, so enjoy the time you have with them. In other words, enjoy the little things or appreciate the small stuff. Enjoy the wagging tails of excited pets when you get home, relish in the snuggles when you're not feeling well, appreciate the playtime outside, savor the laughs they give you as they chase their own tail and cherish the time you have with them.
Also, make sure that, when you adopt a pet, you're ready to share. Share your space, your heart and possibly even your food (if it's okay for your animal to have it). I usually wind up sharing my blanket and couch space with my dogs -- I just can't say no to those adorable little faces when they want to snuggle up to me and get comfortable. I don't share food with them because I absolutely hate it when they beg, but I've shared my heart with them and the pets that I've lost over the years. The pets of my past still have a piece of my heart that they carry with them over that rainbow bridge. I think we can use all of these lessons that our pets teach us in other parts of our lives, such as in the workplace or when raising children.
Being a pet parent can truly be one of the greatest things in life, especially because these animals love you so unconditionally. This brings me to my last lesson that my pets have taught me: what unconditional love looks like. I think this is the best lesson our pets teach us, as they love us 24/7/365, no matter what. We see this even with abused or abandoned animals, who often just wait where they were left for someone to return. This is why they're so excited to see you when you get home or why they cuddle you while you cry. It's why they're so sad when you get upset at them or why they want to spend all of their time with you. Bask in that unconditional love you receive from them for as long as you can. Make sure to enjoy the moments you have, because once they're gone, those memories are all you have.
- Haley (@CSIHALEY)