I often talk about ideal pet ownership. I talk about what we should strive for, what responsible pet ownership should look like, and things I believe are necessary for a stable relationship, from both a physiological and behavioral standpoint.
Now, a topic that sometimes comes up–and this is a conversation I had with a fellow student this morning, which inspired this post–is the immense feeling of guilt some people feel when they see where they should be, and recognize that that isn’t where they are.
And the body’s natural response to this sort of conflict is to do one of two things: either, become what you should be, or change your line of thinking to match your current situation. I see a lot of people feel so frustrated at not being where they think they should be, that rather than recognize that it’s sometimes a slow process, they instead come to the conclusion that where they are is just fine and everyone else is wrong and people should just accept that this is where the bar has been set.
To a degree, they’re right, but only to a degree. The bar will vary, depending on your animal. Every single animal you own comes with a set of standards that need to be met. A herding dog is going to need a different kind of care than a retriever. A poodle will need a different kind of grooming than a pit bull terrier. A European short hair cat will need minimal grooming compared to a Norwegian Forest cat.
So yes, it’s wrong to look at someone who has a border collie and posts about all the training and exercise that goes into their dog, and think that you should be doing the same with your greyhound. And no, you shouldn’t hold yourself to their standard.
But the standard of animal welfare doesn’t consist of rules like “walk your dog for x amount of hours every day”, or “clean the kitty litter x amount of times per day”, or “play with your rabbit x amount of times per week”.
The standard consists of rules like, “walk your dog as needed. Listen to their attempts at communication, and adjust your schedule accordingly” and, “make sure you keep rabbits in pairs; they cannot be kept alone.”
Even still, when putting the standards into perspective, people will still struggle with meeting those conditions, whether it’s because of mental illness, physical illness, or just inherent lack of motivation to do the right thing. They need constant back patting and confirmation that they are doing enough, that they are doing the right thing.
But, the thing is, you should not be looking at others for affirmation. You should know exactly how your pet’s species responds when they are happy and content; you should follow guidelines set by behavioral and physiological scientists and adjust your standards accordingly.
I realize that, again, I’m talking about what you should be doing. So let’s talk about where you currently are. Let’s talk about accepting your shortcomings and dealing with them. I want to start by saying that there is a huge difference between saying, “sometimes I fall short of the standard, and that’s okay, because I will continue to try to do better! This is a journey we are on and journeys are filled with bumps.” and saying, “I frequently neglect my animal’s needs because of x reason, and that’s okay. I am unable to deal with emotional consequences of failure so I will no longer consider it a failure. My pet is going to be just fine at this level.”
Do you see what I’m trying to say? There’s a big difference between accepting that failure happens and continuing to strive against it, and accepting that failure happens and just staying right there in your comfort zone and not attempting to do better. Your ability to provide proper care for your pet isn’t measured in your lack of failure, but in how you respond to your failure.
And it’s important to note that it is our failure, because we are the ones who have placed a different species into our homes, and we are the ones who are shaping and molding their behavior to better suit our own comfort. The number one most important thing you need to realize, is that whatever species of animal you have taken into your home, is not a human, and as such, can only ever do, by nature, what that species was meant to do. Through training and conditioning, we can mold them into something different, but we need to understand that everything they do for our sake, is for our sake, not their own.
And maybe saying it’s always our failure is wrong outside of a certain context, because some genetic traits simply cannot be molded otherwise. Some dogs will always chase chickens, some cats will never want to be cuddled, and that’s okay. It just means that their genetic code is stronger than your training abilities. But that shouldn’t affect your desire to provide proper care for them. See, the mark of true love and compassion for animals is marked by your ability to provide proper care, even when there is no visible reward.
For example, I don’t bond all that well with chickens. I’m sure some people feel about chickens the way I do about dogs, and I think they can be pretty to look at, but that’s it. I have zero emotional investment in the chickens my family owns. Does that mean I neglect their care? There’s nothing in it for me, so what’s the point? The point is that it’s not about me. It’s about the chickens. They are a living and breathing animal under my care, and they deserve proper husbandry.
And that is the bottom line that everyone has to learn. It is not about you. It is about the animal under your care. You may be blessed with a wonderful connection with an animal, where you both click and are in sync and everything is amazing. They may literally save your life, and that is wonderful. But maybe that doesn’t happen. Maybe your pet is just an animal that keeps you company and occasionally nuzzles you, that you feel some kind of affection for but no real bond. That’s okay too. Not everyone is going to bond with their pet. You still have to provide adequate care, though. You still can’t neglect them. They still need trips to the vet, clean food and water bowls, grooming, stimulation, and exercise.
And yes, chronic illness may make that difficult. But it’s not about you, or your illness. It’s about the animal. And if your illness so severely impacts your ability and desire to care for your animal, then you need to find an adequate solution. Having an illness may involve lowering the bar to a certain degree, and no, your dog isn’t neglected because sometimes you have to skip the walk because of your pain flare ups, and your cat will be just fine if dinner is an hour late now and again. But if your pain gets to the point where the walks haven’t happened in weeks? If the depression gets to the point where the cat has missed multiple meals a week for months on end? When you’ve reached a point where the bar is just too low, then your animal is the one that suffers, and regardless of how you feel, the animal’s feelings are more important, because they are the ones who don’t have a choice in the matter.
You do have a choice, and you have to make a decision. You can ask for assistance. You can set an alarm to remind you to feed them. You can hire a walker. You can seek out alternative exercise options that don’t involve much physical exertion on your part. There are resources and options out there to help you get where you need to be. It’s okay that you aren’t where you need to be, but you cannot stop trying to get there.