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Home >Mint Lounge >Mint On Sunday >The pets in our lives and the lives of our pets

The pets in our lives and the lives of our pets

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Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

We all know our pets will most likely die before us; why do we still do it?

Why do people keep pets? This is one of those questions that may appear trivial to a very large number of us, especially those who have never had pets nor ever felt any desire to have any. But for anyone who has had a pet and lost the pet (and we are in a big-time minority), it is a deeply philosophical question, almost an existential one. 

Why do people keep pets? This is one of those questions that may appear trivial to a very large number of us, especially those who have never had pets nor ever felt any desire to have any. But for anyone who has had a pet and lost the pet (and we are in a big-time minority), it is a deeply philosophical question, almost an existential one. 

We usually keep dogs or cats as pets—and I would think that dogs outnumber cats by several orders of magnitude in petdom in human households.

We usually keep dogs or cats as pets—and I would think that dogs outnumber cats by several orders of magnitude in petdom in human households.

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I have had both a cat and a dog as pet, and I have lost both of them much earlier than their natural lifespan.

And even if we as pet owners are in a pitiful minority—there’s apparently a tribe in New Guinea which keeps dogs to only torture them (Google it)—we have a story to tell. If only to justify our actions and habits. We are not that weird.

I lost my dog, a cocker spaniel named Juno, a week ago, to lymphoma—cancer of the lymph nodes—at an age of only seven and a half years, which means she was in the prime of her life.

She died cradled in my arms, and she was the first living creature I have actually seen die: a sudden breathing problem, gasping for air for about five minutes, then a flailing of her legs, a few hiccups, a look into my eyes, and then she was gone, her eyes still open and gazing into the middle distance where there was nothing to see.

My cat, Kitkat, died on the night of 25 January 2004, torn to pieces by street dogs who are always looking for prey. There are two types of cats—house cats and outdoor cats. Both can be pets. The house cat stays home and never ventures out. The outdoor cat is curious about the world and usually comes home only for her meals and her night’s rest. Kitkat was a house cat. 

In her two-and-a-half-year-long life, she ventured out only once, we don’t know when, and we were away, at a friend’s place for dinner, having locked our door and all other ways of ingress, and when we came back, she was dead on the street.

Everyone who keeps a pet knows that the creature—however well-fed and well-medicined and well-looked after—will quite possibly die before his or her feeder and look-afterer. And yet a pet’s death is emotionally—well, quite affecting.

So why do we keep pets at all? And invest in them psychologically, emotionally, physically and financially?

And only human beings keep pets. Chimpanzees don’t, lions don’t, even dogs don’t.

We are more or less certain that our hunter-gatherer ancestors managed to convince vicious wolves that being with hominids was a good deal, and in return, they acted as hunting companions, watchmen to give early warning of attacks from other hominid groups or from animals, and also be the vanguards of the defence—or offence—exercises. Some sub-species of wolves evolved into dogs, who performed many tasks other than what the wolves were kept for.

Once human beings (or the later hominids) learnt agriculture, cats were domesticated to keep rats away from devouring the foodgrains.

But today, we normative human beings do not look to either dogs or cats to perform the same functions. German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers remain the guard dogs, Belgian Malinois are the choice of the US Secret Service to patrol and secure the White House. 

But most humans have breeds like Labradors, Golden Retrievers and Pugs at home. They provide no security against burglars and other evildoers. They will wag their tails and welcome them. 

They love people. 

They have been taught over centuries to love human beings and that’s ingrained in their genetic code now. Oh, human beings, tail waggy-waggy!

Juno came to join our family when she was three weeks old. Of course, she initially treated us with a natural suspicion. What sort of creatures were these two-legged carbon-based mortals? 

But that doubt went away quite speedily when she figured out that we meant no harm to her, but wanted to make her comfortable, even though there were some rules that she would have to follow. These rules she accepted with the cocker spaniel equivalent of a shrug and a bit of a sulk.

Like... Oh well, if these are some insignificant norms I have to follow to not be tapped with a rolled-up newspaper on my nosey and sleep on a soft mattress and enjoy the air conditioner, so be it. They give me food, they take care of me. These are small concessions to make.

So the pet gets a lot from its looking-afterers—I am deliberately coining this word instead of using “masters", since that applies truly only to police dogs and guard dogs.

What do we get?

Strangely enough, the scientific community jury is out on this.

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