Differing Perspectives on the Same Observations

I’ve received many wonderful emails in response to my interviews on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. The stories I’ve heard about peoples’ pets run the gamut from delightful to heart wrenching. Many listeners described crying while driving- I certainly hope Terry and I were not responsible for creating any collisions!

I’ve also received emails from a handful of folks who were put off by the Fresh Air interviews. The content of Anne’s comments (printed below with her permission) is representative of what these disgruntled listeners had to say:

“I’m annoyed at how dogs have become soooo important over the past 10 years or so. They’re just pets! Just animals. Clearly all this elevation of dogs is a by-product of a society in trouble. Never would I have imagined that dogs would be referred to as ‘family members’ or ‘surrogate children.’ NEVER!! Back in the day, the dog was just the ‘family dog’, not ‘the dog family member.’ It was like, ‘Yeah, there’s the dog, so what?’ No thought was given to brushing its teeth, worrying about dog cancer, or feeling guilty if we went on vacation and left the dog at home with a neighbor to look after it. I recently read a book about an African village, and the hard life they have, and the poverty. I found it so shameful that they live like that, while America’s dogs are often dressed in designer clothes, waited on hand and foot, given the best medical care, the best food, cooed over, etc. What the hell has happened to Americans? We’ve gone nutty! Dogs are just dogs, driven by selfish instinct to look after its own interests.”

As easy as it would be to ignore such “fan mail,” I truly believe that Anne’s comments are worthy of consideration. Given what I do for a living, I have certainly grappled with what I believe Anne is questioning. Is it reasonable to invest so much, emotionally and financially, in our pets when there is so much human suffering in the world? After all, the amount of money spent on one of our four-legged family members during the course of a year would represent a fortune to someone who is impoverished. Wouldn’t “shut in” senior citizens relish the affection and attention we lavish upon our pets?

While I agree with Anne’s observations- yes, many people consider their pets to be “family members” and yes, there is a great deal of human suffering in the world- I disagree with her notion that doting on our pets detracts from our willingness and ability to give of ourselves to others. I contend that the opposite is true. Many studies have documented that the human-animal bond positively impacts peoples’ psychological well-being. People whose “emotional bellies” are full rather than empty are more inspired and capable of giving their time, energy, and financial resources to others in need. One need not be a scientist to know that pets bestow a unique brand of sweetness and joy upon our lives; they keep us grounded even when insanity abounds. As I state in the introduction of Speaking for Spot, “Today the human-animal bond is stronger than ever. Perhaps, the more tumultuous the world around us, the tighter we cling to our beloved pets. They soothe us with their predictability and unconditional love, and they consistently give in excess of what they receive.”

Loving our pets does not make them more important than humans, nor does it “replace” our ability to tend to the needy. Rather, opening our homes and our hearts to animals makes our own humanity more accessible. Temple Grandin got it just right when she titled her newest book, “Animals Make Us Human.” Our love of animals doesn’t fill up our hearts- it makes our hearts grow bigger.

Wishing you and your four-legged family members good health,

Dr. Nancy Kay

Specialist, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, or your favorite online book seller.

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11 Responses to “Differing Perspectives on the Same Observations”

  1. Susan Williams says:

    Anne’s comments assume that everyone should live and believe her way.

    My canine companions work with me. They guard, alert, amuse, attempt to rid us of vermin, and provide heat for the house. Why wouldn’t I treat such valuable partners with respect and care.

    My canine companions, present and past, have come from situations where they could no longer stay. Whether shelters, or due to their person moving to a rest home, the canines come not to a house, they come home. For the people who went to rest homes, the honor of being intrusted with a very important part of someone else’s life has meant that there is more to having this particular dog than another source of fur on the couch. We weekly ride up to visit former folk, and greet everyone at the facility. The joy on staff and residents’ faces is so very wonderful.

    Are my canine partners indulged, sure. Are my human co-workers and neighbors indulged as well by me, sure. Whether human or not, I do my best to make life facile for those I encounter. The ability to perceive the need in another, and to provide security and affection to that creature is a responsibility of my faith, and that responsibility does not begin nor end with humans. I don’t dismiss nor criticize Anne’s way of belief. She travels her own path. I do like the road I walk much better.

  2. KateH says:

    I have to wonder just how much that commenter does to help others – especially “just not family” others. I’ve found that those who make the most vociferous (and, to my thinking, rude) comments about how “we” shouldn’t care so much about anything that isn’t another human, don’t care about other humans all that much either.

    Does Anne volunteer with Meals on Wheels, or at a local senior center, by visiting or helping with activities? Does she work with at-risk youth in any way? Does she even knit blankets and caps for premature infants at a local hospital? Has she organized a book collection or personal products drive for members of the military? I know active dog, cat, and bird lovers who all spend what, I’m sure Anne would think was too much, time, attention and money on their animal friends – and yet are involved in multiple things that directly help other people.

    I have also met numerous people who bitch about others spending money on animals (their own money, btw, which if they spent it on an expensive car or electronic stuff, would never get the same comment), who don’t help anyone other than themselves and maybe their immediate human family. The help they do give, to anyone, always seems to come with strings attached. “If you think/act/behave the way I find acceptable, then I’ll help you, but otherwise, not a chance.” That is not a generous heart. Give me an animal lover any day over a narrowed judgemental one.

  3. Kate Hathway says:

    I have to wonder just how much that commenter does to help others – especially “just not family” others. I’ve found that those who make the most vociferous (and, to my thinking, rude) comments about how “we” shouldn’t care so much about anything that isn’t another human, don’t care about other humans all that much either.

    Does Anne volunteer with Meals on Wheels, or at a local senior center, by visiting or helping with activities? Does she work with at-risk youth in any way? Does she even knit blankets and caps for premature infants at a local hospital? Has she organized a book collection or personal products drive for members of the military? I know active dog, cat, and bird lovers who all spend what, I’m sure Anne would think was too much, time, attention and money on their animal friends – and yet are involved in multiple things that directly help other people.

    I have also met numerous people who bitch about others spending money on animals (their own money, btw, which if they spent it on an expensive car or electronic stuff, would never get the same comment), who don’t help anyone other than themselves and maybe their immediate human family. The help they do give, to anyone, always seems to come with strings attached. “If you think/act/behave the way I find acceptable, then I’ll help you, but otherwise, not a chance.” That is not a generous heart. Give me an animal lover any day over a narrowed judgemental one.

  4. Cath Whistler says:

    My offense at Anne’s comments begins with “… they are just animals”, and continues on many levels: her broad generalizations, being contemptively dismissive of perspectives not of her own, lack of empathy for the attachment and emotion of others, the callous dismissal of any concern for a species not her own. I freely admit and describe myself as a “crazy dogmomma”, but in reality the love and relationship that I have with my dogs is no joke. I tremendously respect their ability to balance a dual relationship, both a human-relating role and to be a dog. What other creatures do we ask to to do that? I care about and try to do my best to enable them to live in that dual world that almost no other creature is asked to do, or handles with the grace that they often do (ok, some dogs are more DOGS than others!). Their tolerance and ability to go-with-the-flow has influenced how I deal with the “humans” in my life, and in a good way. Thinking of “their” needs (dogs and humans), and how to balance what I need, my life, and their needs has driven me to put consideration for the both of us into perspective, into my life, and created increased value for both.

    Less importantly, but still how offensive to hear, “…dressed in designer clothes, waited on hand and foot”, a predjudiced, narrow-minded, celebrity-fueled perspective. Frankly, of the probably hundreds of other dog-people I know, none of them fit that description.

    The bottom line for me is that Anne, and others who feel like her, need to learn more tolerance, and if they are not able to supportand understand the object of our affection, accept the love and tolerance that it represents.

    Cath Whistler

  5. Linda Pugh says:

    Hi Nancy,

    I think it is Anne’s comments that are sad. There are many dog haters around and they are responsible for banning dogs in many places where well-behaved dogs (with well-behaved owners) should be allowed to go. We have many of them around here. They begrudge us our dog parks and even campagn to close them. We have dog-hating neighbours who called Animal Control the first time they saw our (well-behaved) dog walking alongside us off the leash.

    My mother used to say “clean your plate as there are starving children in Africa who would love to eat your food. That comment is about as significant as Anne’s. If I didn’t spend my money on my dogs, it would certainly not be going to Africa, but to help animals who are not so fortunate as ours.

    More to the point, we who love dogs can bring true joy by taking our dogs to visit shut-ins, hospitals, and old folks homes. Perhaps you should do a show on the topic of taking dogs to senior centers and have a senior who hasn’t spoken in months suddenly open up to people who have taken a dog in for a visit. This happened to us, and the staff were absolutely amazed.

    The love for our two labs over the years has opened up a whole new world for us. We have made many dog-loving friends, raised a pup for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, taken our two everywhere we can, including doing therapy work at hospitals and senior centres, and we have learned so much and reaped so much love and pleasure from the interaction with our dogs that those dog-haters will never know.

    Keep up the good work!

    Linda, Sarah, TDV, CGC and Sheba, TDV, CGC

  6. Barb says:

    Hi, I just finished reading your article regarding Anne’s observations of “what has happened to American’s”. It was quite an annoying statement to say the least.. What has happened to our pets is while some are claiming more responsibility then before such as not letting them run loose as we did when we were growing up, taking them to the vet while sick, not just for euthanasia when its too late, and caring for them as well as we can, unfortunately, many many fellow americans do not – hence, look at the amounts of animals being abandoned, the shelters in every corner of the country are so full now its hard to understand, and the neglect and lack of care I see on a daily basis in my own neighborhood lets us know that not all Americans have gone crazy over their pets, and I wish they would!
    This little observation by Anne reaks of Cesar Milanism. I believe that we should treat those that we keep in our custody, home, hearts and lives with the utmost respect, especially such loving, pure and innocent creatures as dogs and cats. Their lives here are so short, their stays should be as happy and comforting as can be, and we really acknowledge this when we lose them. I feel bad enough when my pets go that I may not have done all that I could, I couldnt imagine putting any more guilt into the pot if I didnt love them the way I did. In this economy, their lives have changed as well, not as many treats, not as many comforts, and what we cant provide in those ways, we hopefully can fulfill with love, love and more love. I feel sorry for the woman who posted this article – and she mentions our providing greater care to o ur animals shortfalls our care for other humans or seniors, well, I see it this way – Love is love, I care for my father who is elderly with respect, dignity and love, the same as I do for my animals – I dont think me loving my dog the way I do has made me less of a caregiver on this planet to anyone who needs it. I resent people telling Americans that it is wrong or frivolous to love another creature on this planet the way we want to love them. It’s a personal choice.

  7. Diane Rich says:

    Hello Dr. Kay
    Per your request I reviewed your book on my blog, Canine Chat a while back. Just to help you have some recollection of the name.

    I did not hear the interview but did receive your email blast and found the email of Terry Gross’s comments interesting.

    My take on it as a dog trainer/behavior expert of over 20 years is not that people are doting on their dogs so much and making them family members it is that many owners have taken pet parenting to another level.

    Dogs should be treated as family members in my opinion to the degree their needs as dogs are still met. Many people bring dogs into their lives to fulfill their own needs which in many cases is the underlying factor for canine behavioral problems.

    I find the emotional connection between dogs and their people heartwarming and obviously better than having a dog chained up outdoors and being deprived of human connection. However, I have observed in some cases that the pendulum has swung hard the other way and some people who dote on their dogs, have fallen short of creating a well rounded dog.

    The numbers of aggressive dogs and dogs with a myriad of behavioral problems has exploded. Yes, more people are taking the family dog to puppy classes and yes, people are dumping their dogs at doggie day cares. But, I have found that some people are creating problems for their dogs by entitling them into neurosis by using them to fill the void of their own personal demons. As our society has become more dependent on computers, texting, and isolation dogs unfortunately fill that innate need for companionship.

    I have dealt with more cases of canine behavioral problems in the past 10 years than in the previous decade. Some of my clients that have attended puppy classes have been instructed by their trainers not to say “no” to their dogs and unfortunately are not educated on how to give their dogs structure. As you know, pups and dogs need more than sit, stay and down.

    As you know, 60% of America’s dogs are overweight. They don’t get that way by themselves. We indulge our wonderful dogs into poor health and emotional challenges.

    Conversely there are wonderful dog owners who choose to educate themselves on providing great balance for their human-dog relationship. And to those owners, my hat goes off to you.

    I believe you can spoil your dog rotten but the dog needs structure, an education, exercise, proper nutrition, acclimation to life, social skills, mental stimulation, play, and lots of love to be a well rounded, confidant dog.

    Be well, Dr. Kay

    Warm Regards,
    Diane Rich

  8. Stan says:

    This person must be a member of the Rush Limbaugh Pet Club. You’ve got to be kidding! What about homeless people that have dogs? No designer clothes there, but there they are… pushing their carts with dogs in tow. Why is that? As miserable and as poor as their lives are, they do it because it makes their lives better.

    Last year our family spent several hundreds of dollars to remove a gastric tumor from our guinea pig. Our children play with him everyday. They know how fortunate we are to still have Baby and they are better for the experience. No regrets at all.

    Thanks Dr. Kay. I’m not used to getting watery eyed, but your interview touched my heart and stopped me in my tracks.

  9. Dear Dr. Kay,

    Thank you for posting “Anne’s Response” to you interviews. I totally agree. I’ve had a dog all of my life (mulitiple dogs in my adult life). Our Cocker Spaniel, Puddy, was a member of the family when I was born. I’m a dog trainer and horse trainer. I’m a retired breeder of 30 years. I’m also a nurse and worked in high risk OB, Neonatal intensive care, and later became an epidemiologist, starting the HIV/AIDS program at the U of WA. My patients and their families were so important to me. My critters in my home were my sanity.

    I can agree with Anne in that, growing up, our dogs were well treated and lived in the house, but they were fed canned dog food from the grocery store and weren’t allowed to sleep on the beds. If there were training classes available, our dogs didn’t go to them. Still, they were trained well enough, by my family, to the basic manners—sit, down, stay, no jumping.

    Times have changed and I love showering my ZooCrew with love and attention. Never has that stopped me from “being there” for those that need me. When my dad was in his last weeks of life, and hospitalized, my Polish Lowland puppy was part of his therapy. The nurses just would say “we didn’t see any dog ;-)” I wish Anne could read some of the amazing stories involving pets and their impact on humans. “Animals Make Us Human” would be a great book to start with!

    Thank you for taking on the happy, sad, challenging, rewarding aspects of our beloved pets!

    Warm wishes,
    Connie and the IslandZooCrew

  10. Kathie says:

    Dr. Kay – thank you for a thoughtful response to the observations of those who feel so strongly that we who value our pets and their place in our families are misguided. I know for myself that having had the good fortune to love and be loved by my animals has brought me an unparalleled joy and contentment that results from letting animals into our hearts. I am better for it, and definitely more compassionate.

    I have walked almost daily for the past 30 years along a path near my home. I have often observed on days when I don’t have a dog with me that people passing in the opposite direction often look away, don’t smile and don’t make conversation. On the days when I do have a dog with me people smile as they approach and talk either to me or to the dog. I have made many lifelong friends over the years from these interactions.

    Volunteering to help others in need has been a part of my upbringing and activities since childhood. In the 1980′s I began volunteering with my dogs in activities involvling animal assisted therapy, in addition to my other work with our St. Vincent de Paul Conference. I have observed with interest that many of my friends in our SVDP group also place great value on the importance of the human-animal bond, and many of my friends and fellow volunteers in animal assisted therapy are equally as involved in humanitarian ministries such as those performed by organizations such as The Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

    I think of greatest importance is what is in our hearts – and I couldn’t couldn’t have said it any better than your closing sentence – “Our love of animals doesn’t fill up our hearts- it makes our hearts grow bigger.”

  11. Ingrid King says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the interview on “Fresh Air”, and I was particularly moved that you allowed yourself to show your emotions during the segment on euthanasia.

    I think animals do make us human. They are amazing teachers on so many levels, but I believe that the most important lesson we can learn from loving an animal is how much this connection opens our hearts. And once your heart opens, things change. Life expands on many levels, and we become more compassionate towards others – human or animal.