Contrarian: Reigning Cats and Dogs

We now treat Fido and Mittens like they’re our kids — scratch that. They’re much more important than mere children

Andrea Sergio, who runs Creature Comforts, a Main Line pet-sitting service, describes one: a man who wanted her to recite philosophy to his cat. “I kept waiting for him to go, ‘Just kidding’ and burst out laughing,” she recalls. “But he didn’t. He really wanted me to talk philosophy to a cat.” Advertisers have convinced us it’s now socially acceptable to claim that cats understand Spinoza and Schopenhauer.

“Show me someone who brings a kid to an emergency room after one bout of diarrhea,” says local veterinarian Tracy Scola. “But people do that with their pets. And I’ve had anorexic women come in with dogs that were being starved. A lot of them see their pets as extensions of themselves.” On page 122 of this very magazine, in fact, you can learn how you don’t have to be without your doggie for one moment, even on a trip to … Manhattan.

No wonder, then, that whatever might ail your beloved boxer, you probably think it ought to be fixed. The Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital at Penn, one of the largest vet hospitals in the world, offers services such as intensive care units staffed 24 hours a day, CAT scans, MRIs and full-time ophthalmologists. But as in human medicine, these services are primarily for the rich. Treatments can easily run into five figures, making some pet cures as exclusive as a house in Bel Air.

This pet-as-human-extension applies to both sexes. There are guys who refuse to get their dogs and cats neutered because, well, those dogs and cats are guys. “Guys’ll get female animals spayed, even though that’s invasive abdominal surgery,” Scola says. “But 10 minutes for a neutering? No way.” In case they can be guilted into having Skipper fixed, there’s now a product called Neuticles that restores the appearance of an unneutered, more manly dog. I don’t want to know any more about this. If you do, look it up online.

Recently, vets have started using the expression “treating the owner,” meaning they’re aware they’re dealing with our psychological problems rather than the medical problems of our pets. Marion Silk, a vet who just moved from Philly to Boston, remembers one woman who came in demanding an operation to fix the bald spot on her bichon frise — an animal hair transplant, if you will. When Silk explained that the bald spot was caused by putting barrettes in the dog’s fur, the woman stormed off to get a second opinion. “She wanted corrective surgery on her dog,” Silk recalls.

The anthropomorphism here is imagining that the dog is aware of how much like us it’s becoming. It isn’t. It’s a dog. I once had a friend who was an Eagles fan, and he claimed his yellow Lab would cheer whenever the Eagles scored a touchdown. I witnessed this spectacle once, and saw a dog who would jump up and down every time his master cheered. I don’t think the dog even knew the TV was on, and if he did, he didn’t understand the rules of football. He was a dog.

Rather than bring us closer to our pets, our sudden cultural obsession with animals seems, instead, to have brought the crazies out of the woodwork. Unwilling to appreciate our pets for what they are, we’ve created a cult that appreciates them for what we wish they were. Cats can’t tell Schopenhauer’s teachings from Mother Goose, and dogs can’t call pass interference. No animal with fur looks good in clothes. Thinking otherwise is creepily close to the definition of insanity.

There was a time when caring for an animal probably meant you were a good person. Now it’s as likely to mean that you have deep-rooted psychological problems, that you can’t relate to people, or that you’re an obsessive. The simplicity of the relationship has, for many pet owners, been replaced by needless complication. That’s it, that’s the whole story. They’re dogs. They’re cats. They’re marvelously uncomplicated, and trying to complicate them only makes us humans look stupid.