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An Utilitarian Take on Owning A Pet

alec vanderboom

We are the only large family that I know to own pets. Most of the Catholic Mamas in my social circle have a loud "no pet" policy. It's sort of like "I'll take any new baby God sends my way, but the Creator of the Universe better NOT ask me to house a dog!"

I found that confusing.

I love my dog.

I love my cat.

Jon and I started out our marriage with dogs. Jon was a "dog" guy when we meet. In fact, the very first sentence he said to me was "My name is Jon and I have two dogs." He owned these large, gorgeous white fluffy Samoyeds. Can you imagine a handsome, tall guy walking two of these beauties down the street?

Jon was a "dog guy." He took his pet responsibilities seriously. Practically every day, he took his dogs to a dog park to run and play. He walked his dogs. He brushed their coats. Our first date happened while walking his dogs on snowy cross country trails deep in a Wisconsin State Park.  Having pets were a part and parcel of our relationships from the beginning.

Over thirteen years, Jon's dogs both lived to the rip old age of 11 and 13. I adopted two mutts from different pounds and different states, Madison and Mackinaw, but they both died within a year due to health problems. Heartbreaking.

Our latest dog, Toby, showed up within days of moving into a new house. For three years, ever since reading "Dick and Jane" books, my son prayed his heart out for a cockerspaniel. We were living in an small City Apartment, so Jon and I kept saying "No new dogs until we move into a real house. Just ask God to send us one then." When we moved into our first house, we decided prudently "Lets wait at least six months before getting a new pet."

72 hours after a hard move into a new house, I found an ad for a free English Cockerspaniel who needed a new home. I knew he was meant to be ours. Toby came into our lives on the 4th of July 2011. He's a giant teddy bear of a dog. It would be impossible to find a more calm dog or one better suited for a home with lots of young toddlers. Sometimes, God knows our "timing" better than us.

In December 2011, we adopted a one year old orange tabby cat named Bella. This is my daughter Hannah's cat. My town has an adoption center located inside of our local Pet Smart. We initially went in to adopt another cat. She was super shy and wouldn't come out of her cage. In that moment, I realized how outgoing a cat needs to be to thrive in our household. I told Hannah to start praying to St. Francis to find us the right cat. The next cat we looked at was Bella--beautiful and calm.

 I'm not a cat person, but our Bella is a gem of a cat. She's social and tough.  She's such a funny cat. When I go to walk the dog at night, Bella will slip out the door and walk around the block with us. She's very stealth--she hides behind bushes and jumps into shadows. I can't see her. I only here this little ring of her cat bell as she trails us all around the block and then back into the house again.

The kids are reading "Warrior Cats" with their Daddy at night. Bella will curl up on Jon's lap as he's reading (only that series, not other sci-fi books.) We joke that she gets inspired by the adventures in these books.

In our house, people rank high above pets. Our pets aren't equal to "our kids." I don't call them "my babies" because I've been blessed with real babies to hold.

However, pets are very useful to my family. We're a poor family--both in money and in time. But our pets are really a good return on our investment of time and resources. Here's my practical arguments for owning a dog or a cat.

  • We walk my dog three times a day and it makes my neighborhood a better place. We bought a house that was cheap, which means that I don't live the in the safest area. Yet three times a day, early morning, afternoon, and night, either my husband or myself walk around our block. That means, I know my neighborhood. I've nicknamed walking the dog as "doing the neighborhood patrol."
  • My dog keeps me and my children safe while my husband commutes to work. My husband leaves before dawn to go to work and comes home after dark. He leaves me a safe alarm system. My dog is gentle with my children, pleasant when guests come over, but he'll bark if someone he doesn't know walks into our front yard. I feel safe and protected as a woman who spends a lot time alone in her house with lots of small children.
  • My dog forces me to exercise. He forces me to keep a schedule. He's an interesting conversation piece when meeting new people.
  • My dog is a sign of unity, with people who have no kids. Often times my family seems a little weird to secular people. "You've got 5 children? You homeschool? You like going to church?" So it's cool when "our dogs" is a comfortable conversation place with people who have very different lives from mine.
  • If my dog's utility is for protection from humans, my cat protects us from "critters." My cat kills bugs--like those annoying crickets that tortured us for an entire summer--and mice. 
There are costs to owning a pet. We buy Iams pet food for our pets. My husband taught me early that if you pay more for the good stuff, you have a lot less poop to clean up afterwards. There's cat litter, flea medicine, yearly vet bills. There's also a time commitment for the Mom. No matter how much your kids promises to takes care of her cat, it's going to be you who either a) argues with the daughter that now is the moment the cat litter box needs to be cleaned, or b) do it yourself. At the end of the day, what's the big deal?

Pets are beautiful. They give us unconditional love and add a funny splash to our days. They help our kids, who often don't have the latest video games or the $500 Barbie Jeeps, feel a kinship with their peers. My daughter's cat has inspired her creative writing, given her a 4-H project, and is one of the first things she mentions when meeting new friends. "I'm Hannah. I'm 10 and I have a cat named Bella." My Hannah is so much like her dad!