To own or not to own?

I do and don't like the idea of 'owning' an animal. What I like is that it means you have complete legal right to live with the animal -- so long as you observe your moral duty to care for it. What I don't like is that animals are not handbags or benches: they cannot be indifferent to the question of who owns them. Yet a lot of people regard pet acquisition as a matter of checking off their own list of likes, set against another list of hates, as if it's all about them. They assess only the animal as a potential baby of the family; they don't really assess themselves as potential pet parents. Of course, parent- and home-assessment is the job of responsible breeders and animal-shelter personnel. But not every breeder really cares, and not all re-homings are well thought-through. So here is my checklist for potential owners. If any of these is a problem, you should wait for however long it takes until either your expectations and commitment or your circumstances change.

  • Are you a neat freak and obsessively tidy? No, of course not: you're just properly house-proud. That's fine, but if you have a free-roaming animal such as a cat or dog or in some cases bird or rodent, you need to accept that there will be messes. (I sometimes think, with perfect equanimity, that one doesn't have a dog to make life more convenient.) Unless you are going to police all the furniture, you need to accept that there will be evidence, in fur and slobber, of your animal in most of the house. Nothing to stop you from making certain pieces of furniture 'off limits', but even this might be no protection, since a cat doesn't know an Eames chair from a mat in a shed, and cares just as little about scratches in either one. You can always buy furniture protectors, and dog blankets designed especially for your dog's side of the sofa or for an armchair. But that brings us to our next point, which is --
  • Do you have a budget big enough to make doing the right thing unproblematic? Vet bills can be unexpectedly high for thorough, quality care. In my experience, the second-highest bills fall in puppyhood, on account of the vaccines and neutering/spaying that a puppy requires (and similar costs apply to a cat). The most expensive bills come in the dog's senior years, when more things start to go wrong and the consequences of not treating them become steeper. If you can't afford to pay the bills that keep your life hygienic and your pet's life comfortable and as healthy as possible, then now is not the time to get a pet.
  • Are you healthy enough for the pet you want to keep? Some animals clearly require a good deal of physical engagement and fitness. Horses do; hamsters don't. Boxers do; Bichons don't. Be realistic about their needs and your energetic and attitudinal capacity to meet them. And then there is the question of longevity. Yours, not just the pet's. Are you going to be around 15 years from now for your cat? What will happen to the cat if you are seriously ill, incapacitated, or god forbid deceased in that time? No one can exactly predict the future, but if you can see a dark cloud on your health horizon, remember that it's not just your own life that's at stake.
  • When the novelty or fun (or both) of having the pet deserts you, momentarily or for a longer time, do you have the commitment and devotion to stay the course, as you would for needy family members? I was given a lop-eared rabbit once, for Valentine's Day. It was a thoroughly charming and delightful gift, and for me as a student living out of one bedroom in a shared house, it was just as inappropriate. It would also have been wrong for me if I had been someone that travelled often, or was planning a move to a far-flung location. Pets, unlike children, are not easily portable. Having a pet affects what sort of holidays you can take, and whether you can stay in hotels or rent certain properties or not (animals are often banned, and that means you as well). Are you prepared to accept limits on your human freedom because you have a non-human family member?

As animal lovers we have to be sure that this is the right place, and the right period in our lives, to bring a vulnerable animal into it. We have to be sure not only that they are right for us, but also that we have enough to offer them, now and for all of their lives (god willing).