Portland is a great place to call home — for dogs, cats, people, or parakeets. It consistently tops the list for those rating “pet friendliest cities” because members of this community deeply love their animals, and they want to provide the best for them. The people of this city spend a great deal of time researching, pondering, and discussing “what is the best” when it comes to pet food, toys, medicine, exercise . . . and the list goes on. These questions eventually come to be asked of a veterinarian. To be honest, while we enjoy discussing the merits of types of nutrition or medicine to keep pets healthy, there is one question that is universally dreaded: “What is the best pet to get?”
As with much comparison shopping aimed at getting “the best” of a pet product or service, deciding which pet might be best comes down to asking a person or family what is best for them. Due diligence in this area calls for hard questions: What is my lifestyle? (active or sedentary or in-between). Where do I live? (apartment or suburb or farm). What do I do? (work from home or travel for business). Other considerations include whether a family member has certain allergies (reptiles are an option for the violently animal-dander-allergic person) or certain fears (in this slither-phobic situation a snake is NOT a good choice — stick to fuzzy bunnies). For parents whose children have seen the latest Disney movie and come home begging for a pet, I want to give a shout out to the PBSKIDS website “Which pet is right for you?” This site asks thoughtful questions AND asks children to consider many aspects of pet ownership, from the time they’ll have to devote to the pets to the ways they can show that they are responsible enough to have a pet. This makes a veterinarian AND a parent very happy — and yes, it is required reading in this family.
After all that research into yourself and the type of pets you may want, all bets on “what will be the best pet for me” are off. That’s because, after decades of viewing the human-animal bond at its best (and worst), I have found that intangibles play a huge role in successful pet-person relationships, just like those of people-people — reaching beyond lifestyle factors. For example, some people want pets that go hand-in-hand with their own personalities, maybe one that is equally smart, stubborn, or charming. Or they’re seeking a type of relationship with a pet — one that is achingly aloof (a Tabby cat that’s always just beyond reach), or doggedly inseparable (dedicated hound that plods one step behind). Or, honestly, there are pet owners seeking a look they find appealing: cute, quirky, exotic, or silly.
For every relationship that has an easy explanation, there are those that require a second look — or listen — even for professionals to understand. Here’s a great example. What at first glance seemed to be a “not great fit” entered the hospital as a harried lawyer followed by a sheepish Lab with clothing bits stuck in its stomach. The background story involved an inattentive attorney who owned an active — and perceptive — pooch. Her dog who could tell from the morning’s choice of clothing whether it was to be a lazy day on the couch with her furry friend (slouchy sweats), or a busy day at court (fashionable foundations under a business suit). After a particularly busy week, the owner came home to find her dog in pain, after gnawing on and ingesting the eyes and hooks out of all her “supportwear.” The owner made two choices after surgery, neither involving the dog: 1) work less, and 2) put expensive undies in top drawers. What another pet owner might classify as a behavioral issue, this owner told me she saw as a wakeup call — to wake up later more often — and she loved her pet all the more for it.
For others, the why is not at first seen or heard, on the surface. Many years ago I had the privilege of knowing a lovely 90-pound elderly woman who had a 120-pound Doberman in my blood donor program. She took aspirin daily for elbow pain from walking the dog, who pulled. After several months of blood donations, I asked her why (although we would miss her in the program!) she didn’t have a perky Pekingese. She said her dog’s size was a minor issue compared to his devotion and his demeanor: she felt protected and loved since the passing of her linebacker husband.
There are owners who have not one but several high maintenance-type pets, but the work involved matters little. Often, these are the animals they grew up with, and the work is comforting and renewing rather than exhausting. For those who adopt a pet in need of a second chance, a behaviorally challenged ADD Terrier is a chance for some rescuer’s children to “learn tolerance and patience” as an alternative to rejection from a home.
These personality traits extend well into my profession also, perhaps to a degree that we are sometimes hesitant to show readily to the public. For example, I have colleagues who have adopted pets from other countries, going to great lengths to ship home a stray, injured animal. It has shown me that a transatlantic flight, piles of paperwork, and the challenge of translating medical lingo in order to get a pre-flight health certificate is simply not an obstacle for those who feel an unspoken moral obligation when an injured pet crosses their path.
Eager-to-be pet owners take tests online that claim to “find the best pet for you”— the equivalent of match.com for inter-species relationships. For some who struggle to find a fit, this approach falls neatly into the “this makes sense” department. For many others, though, life alongside animals doesn’t fall along a bell curve or into a category. They make their lives fit around a pet because some chord is struck, some quality or trait that simply cannot be lived without. For the need or want of that intangible, the “shoulds” and “musts” just … fall away.
When you love something for which there is no good rational reason, the act of loving it becomes a gift you give not only to that pet but to yourself. What they give to you may remain a mystery to anyone looking for a measurable reason. Sometimes what is “best” is not the superlative object that’s been determined by comparison to others for “best fit.” It all depends on context. For pet owners, the needs of our internal lives aren’t as evident as those of our external lives — that is when all the measuring sticks need to be put away. There are no comparisons when it comes to your best pet in the world, and no explanation is necessary.
“The things that we love tell us what we are.” ~ St Thomas Aquinas
Dr. Heidi Houchen is an ER/Critical Care veterinarian at VCA Northwest Veterinary Specialists in Clackamas; she writes and lectures extensively about trauma, blood banking, and toxicology. She is especially passionate about keeping pets and poisons apart.