I have been pesco-vegetarian for 27 years, long before it was trendy or commonplace, and I have progressive views on animal welfare. I’ve never discussed my views on my blog, though, because it feels a bit like I’m forcing my beliefs on other people and I hate that. Having said all that, my opinions on keeping pets will come through in this post, not to make anyone feel upset or guilty or ‘wrong’ but because my entire blog is written from my own perspective and my perspective on animal welfare is one of my strongest. Before anyone flips out, please bear in mind that I am entitled to my opinion and absolutely nothing you can say to the contrary will change it so basically don’t waste your breathe telling me how fabulous dog crates are.
I’ve owned a pet since I was 6 weeks old. Over the years I’ve shared my life with cats, rabbits, horses, dogs, even a pig (which was slaughtered when I was 11 and probably planted the seeds of my aversion to eating meat). I had a chaotic and often lonely childhood and my pets gave me comfort, joy, companionship and unconditional love – I don’t know how I would have survived without them.
Looking back, however, we as a family made a lot of mistakes in our pet ownership. For example, we got a beautiful, intelligent, loving Labrador/Collie dog then left it on its own for 8 hours a day. The poor thing had a lonely, understimulated and miserable existence and I feel guilty to the bottom of my soul for that and still, nearly 30 years after his death, apologise to him in my prayers. We owned a rabbit that was kept in a tiddly cage for most of its life and even though I was only 9 years old at the time and didn’t know any better I still feel guilty about it. I am absolutely against keeping pets chained up or in confinement and that includes birds and fish. I also think dog cages are barbaric. I know it’s currently trendy to jail dogs, but then it used to be trendy to send children up chimneys until we came to our senses and realized it was cruel. I’m now going to have comments from people who tell me their dog loves its cage, my answer to which is great, dogs love to have a quiet, comfy place to sleep just so long as you never shut the door and it’s free to leave whenever it likes. I do have to put in a disclaimer here that caging an animal for short periods for health reasons, eg if recovering from surgery, is fine and in the best interests of the dog (even if the dog doesn’t realize it). I’m even against owning horses to ride, even though I had two as a kid. There’s a reason we call training horses ‘breaking’ them, and if you have to break a horse’s spirit to get it to do what you want I can’t see how that’s justifiable. Plus, kicking an animals’ ribs to make it move is cruel by anyone’s standards.
“When you know better, do better” Maya Angelou
I’m saying all this because before we own a pet we need to think about the kind of environment we can provide for it. It’s not about us, it’s about them. Cats, for example, are mostly nocturnal and can roam up to 4 miles each night. If you live next to a busy road and are planning on never letting it out of the house you have to consider how healthy an environment that is and whether, much as you’d like a cat, it’s actually suitable for the cat.
I already had a moggy when I got really sick with M.E. I’d adopted him from a rescue charity when he was 6 weeks old (all my pets have been rescues) and I loved the bones of him. I installed a cat-flap in the back door and he could come and go as he pleased, which he mainly did at night and slept the day away with me on my bed. He was no bother to look after, even for someone as ill as me, I just had to feed him twice a day and that gave me a reason to get up in a morning. That cat absolutely kept me alive. On the days I felt so ill and was in so much pain I didn’t know if I could carry on I’d look at him and wonder what would happen to him if I killed myself. Who would care for him? Who would love him like I did? The answer was no-one (my parents weren’t allowed to own pets in their apartment block) and I knew I had to survive for his sake. He was tragically run over in 2002 (I think he’d become quite deaf in his old age) and I was distraught.
I now had no reason to get out of bed each day, had no-one to chat to and no-one to to cuddle. My days felt devoid of purpose, bearing in mind I was still almost totally bedridden and very poorly, and even though I was still grieving some weeks later my parents took me to the rescue centre and we came home with another cat, a 2 year old Tom. Being young, he was a different kettle of fish to my previous boy and much harder to look after because he was still at the stage where he wanted to play. I found the first few months hard work, and wondered if I’d made a mistake, but eventually we settled into a new routine and developed a very special bond.
Fast forward 12 years and he developed chronic kidney disease. We were never away from the vets in the final year of his life and it’s situations like this you have to bear in mind when you take on a pet. Not only the expense (I spent £1000 on him that year) but the effort involved which, when you’re ill, is immense. Luckily my M.E. had improved a fair bit by then and I was able to drive again – I would never have coped if I’d still been bedridden and I genuinely don’t know what would have happened. I finally had to have him put to sleep in 2011.
I had such a special bond with that cat that I couldn’t even contemplate replacing him with another moggy, yet once again my days were devoid of purpose and I felt really lonely without a furry companion. I wondered if I were well enough now to consider getting a dog and spent some weeks researching the kinds of breeds which would be suitable for someone as ill as me, eventually deciding on a Chihuahua which I read didn’t need much exercise. I don’t agree with buying pets, though, when there are so many in rescue needing a home but as I live in a farming community all the rescue dogs were either Collies or Staffies. I spent weeks trawling the rescue centres online but the only small dog I saw was a little chap called Bertie. He was a 2½ year old Miniature Schnauzer, a breed I’d never even heard of, so I spent a few more weeks learning about Schnauzers and eventually decided to go and have a look.
He was actually much larger than I’d imagined (he’s 1¼” taller than the breed standard) and I was still unsure whether he was ideally what I wanted, but as he tentatively put his paw on my knee and looked up at me with huge, worried eyes I instantly fell in love. Add this to the fact he shared a birthday with my Nanna, and had the same name as one of my family members and I couldn’t ignore the signs that he was meant to be mine.
Despite being young, Bert was a really laid back dog. In fact, I got so worried about how much he slept I took him to the vet for a check-up, but was told he just had a chilled personality and to be grateful 😉 But that’s kind’ve where my luck ended. I’m a terrible sleeper at the best of times, so Bert’s bed was put in the Utility room and he slept downstairs. But he woke every morning at 4am and started barking. To cut a lonnnng, stressful, exhausting story short it took me 2 months to get him to sleep through, and even now 6 years later he still wakes me at 6am every single day of the year and I am permanently shattered. I thought I’d be able to leave Bertie on his own for an hour or two if I needed to, not knowing that he had severe separation anxiety. Despite trying various behaviour modification techniques we’ve never managed to conquer this, so I need a dog sitter every time I need to leave the house. He had various other emotional issues, including weeing in the house despite being house-trained, and it took about 9 months and a lot of hard work for me to get these sorted out. He’s also a barker. Terrier breeds do tend to yap for England, especially the boys, and Minis are renowned for being vocal. Again I tried every trick in the book and in the end had to admit defeat – he just loves the sound of his own voice and will bark at a leaf floating past the lounge room window 😉 Some days, when I have a migraine or am particularly sound sensitive, this drives me to absolute distraction and is actually physically painful. Mini Schnauzers don’t need huge amounts of exercise but they do still need to go out and obviously my walking ability is severely limited. Having thought about this I walked him on my little mobility scooter on an 8m extending dog lead. Bert, though, was a puller and I learned some years later that he’d never been taught to walk on a lead by his previous owner. Our walks became a nightmare and I often came back in tears, with my painful joints in tatters. With that, his noctural wakings, barking, emotional problems, going nuts at other dogs and general lack of being trained I was so stressed, exhausted and ill at the end of the first month that I rang my Mum in floods of tears completely overwhelmed and unable to cope. I had no idea that having a dog was going to be that hard and I was simply too ill to manage. She told me that my health came first and that I should return him to the pound but, as my best friend recently told me “you are one of the most loyal people I know” and for me it wasn’t an option. Bert was family, I loved him and I would make it work no matter what.
We are apparently lucky to have one of the country’s leading dog behaviour experts in Cumbria, so I rang him for advice. He told me I’d chosen the wrong dog and that there was no way of teaching Bert to walk to heel on a mobility scooter. I put the phone down in floods of tears, and a fierce determination to prove him bloody well wrong. Just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a dog, even if the dog has issues. Particularly if the dog has issues. So I googled, went on forums and read everything I could about training difficult dogs and 2 long, stressful, tiring, frustrating years later Bertie and I finally came to an understanding.
We are now a team. He walks beautifully next to my mobility scooter. He comes when called (mostly 😉 ). He sits, downs and stays when asked (mostly 😉 ). He still barks for England, but no longer hurls himself at visitors and instead sits nicely by the front door when the doorbell rings waiting for his treat for being a good boy. He’s brilliant with children. Hopeless with other dogs. But I can take him anywhere and he is golden. In particular, he loves riding in the car sitting on his booster seat in the back, wearing his doggie seatbelt, with his head stuck out the window, beard and ears flapping in the wind. We get constant compliments on what a brilliantly behaved pooch he is and I smile and think to myself ‘if only you knew’ 😉
He exhausts me, and makes me joyful, in equal measure. I found taking him out twice a day on my scooter all too much, so now employ a dog walker for his morning walk which means I can no longer afford to buy clothes, or joint braces or other vital stuff for myself. I insured him at £17.50 a month which, 2 MRI scans, 2 x-rays, an operation on his leg, drug induced vomiting after eating rat poison, worms, several fatty tumours, several ear warts and a bout of colitis later, went up to £70 a month so now cripples me financially. I also have to employ a dog groomer who comes to the house every 6 weeks. He has food intolerances, so has to be fed an expensive dog food and has to take supplements, which are another drain on my limited funds. Without him I’d be monetarily so much better off but emotionally so much poorer.
Having a pet when you’re ill isn’t impossible, but it is a huge committment and one which shouldn’t be taken lightly. Looking after a pet well can be stupidly expensive and absolutely exhausting. No matter how ill you are, their needs come first. You can’t decide one day that you’re too tired to walk your dog, or that you don’t fancy going out because it’s chucking down. No matter how ill I’ve ever been over the past 6 years Bertie has never once not been walked twice a day, and if I couldn’t do it I got someone else to do it for me. They may get sick at some stage, so you have to consider how you’d pay for that or if you have the resources to look after an ill animal. Cats and dogs can live until they’re 20, so you do have to look ahead and think about the future. But if you do feel able to take on a pet the rewards are beyond words. Bertie woke me at 5.30am this morning (I eventually moved his bed to my bedroom) and even though I was annoyed at being woken at the crack of dawn (again) one look at his furry little face and I just smiled. He makes me laugh and brings me joy every day of his life and I can’t imagine being without him.