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Gwen Cooper

Why Do We Love Our Pets?

Why do our pets make us so happy?

homer, homer blind cat, gwen cooper, scarlett cooper

Scarlett and the cone of shame...

I left town for a business trip last week, and life is always more complicated during those few days before travel. Outfits have to be planned, cleaned, and packed. Newspaper service had to be stopped and arrangements made to have mail picked up. Editors and colleagues had to be notified of my absence, deadline extensions (in a few cases) have to be asked for. The speech I gave had to be written (one of these days I'll stop procrastinating on these things!). And so on and so on and so on.

All of that seems like a cakewalk, though, in comparison to the arrangements that had to be made to care for my two senior cats, Scarlett and Homer, while I was away. Scarlett is diabetic and needs low-carb moist food (dry food is now forbidden to her), plus she needed her twice-daily insulin shot. Homer's kidneys are showing the tiniest bit of wear, so he needs a low-protein diet-plus, if he gets no dry food at all, his stomach gets terribly upset. Who would make sure that the right food went to the right cat while I'm gone? Scarlett had just had surgery for a tumor and still has her stitches in, so perhaps it would make sense to board her at the vet's office while I was away? Dietary issues aside, I worried that she and Homer, left unsupervised, might engage in the kind of rough-and-tumble that could have damaged her stitches. On the other hand, Homer had never been alone-with no humans or other cats for company-for so much as five minutes in his entire fourteen years of life. Because he is blind, this is no small consideration.

These are all questions that ended up resolving themselves before I left. The bigger question--the question all of my non-pet friends and family members have been asking for years, and that I occasionally ask myself at times like this--is, why do we do it? Why do those of us who love animals voluntarily add to the responsibilities and expenses that crowd our already hectic lives? What, in short, is in it for us?

The simple answer is that it makes us happy. The alternative, an unthinkable alternative for those of us who are diehards, would be having no pets-and I can't even begin to imagine a happy life for myself that doesn't include at least a couple of four-legged furry ones sharing my home with me.
The bigger question, though, is why do pets make us happy? Why is it that even though we know all the work and responsibility involved, even though we know we will have to bear the eventual heartbreak of watching our pets grow old, even though we know we will someday lose them altogether-why, then, do we still regard the prospect of sharing our homes with cats or dogs (or horses, or goats, or what have you) with such unalloyed joy?

It's a question that I'll examine from different angles over the course of writing this blog. My short answer for now, though, is that humans are pack animals, and it is essential to our nature-from an evolutionary perspective, it's been essential to our survival as a species-to make others happy. Some of us experience this need to a greater extent than others, but the desire to please others is as hard-wired into us as using tools or walking on two legs.

And, despite all the seeming effort involved, the truth is that it's so easy to make an animal happy-so much easier than it seems to be to make other people happy. When my cats have their favorite food, their favorite toys, and their favorite lap to cuddle in, they're so deeply happy they practically radiate it. Their happiness isn't complicated the way human happiness is, with worries about future troubles or what they might have to offer in exchange for the happiness they've been given. There's no concern that showing happiness too openly might make the happiness go away, the way, for example, you might not want to appear too enthusiastic in the earliest stages of a romantic relationship.

If there is a purer, less complicated joy than that of making an animal happy, I have yet to experience it. And there's something deeply fulfilling about knowing that, even in a complicated and often unkind world, you've managed to create a pocket of perfect security and bliss for at least one small creature.

As I write this, Homer is curled up in my lap, purring away. He doesn't know that I'd been struggling to meet a deadline or worrying about who will feed and care for him while I'm gone. All he knows is that he just got a couple of his favorite treats (Temptations by Whiskas, which seriously must be made with the cat equivalent of crack, my cats go so nuts for them!), and his favorite napping spot just got freed up when Scarlett left to go snooze in her little pink cat bed.

Some days, it's good to be a cat...


About the Author

Gwen Cooper is a novelist and author of the memoir Homer's Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned About Love and Life With a Blind Wonder Cat.