A Cat Person Gets a Dog
It doesn't purr.
It doesn't clean itself. It eats bras. ...
By Emily YoffePosted Friday, June 14, 2002, at 7:35 AM PT
The lowest point, so far, in my three-month experience of dog ownership came one miserable,
rainy night at 11—when you get a dog, you realize your life has become a series of lousy late nights. There I was, wet,
tired, waiting for my new beagle, Sasha, to relieve herself when I saw she had picked up something out of the grass and was
vigorously chewing on it. I knew that an unauthorized ingestion could result in a really late night: a trip to the animal
emergency ward and a $1,000 bill for surgery. (I know of a basset hound who ate a dozen bagels and had to have his stomach
pumped, and a Great Dane who died after eating his owner's pantyhose.) So I bent down, inserted my hand into Sasha's mouth,
and removed what I soon discovered was a used condom.
Perhaps I should blame the people I had previously thought of as my nice neighbors. But without
Sasha, I would have been able to continue thinking well of them. Without Sasha, I would have been home, my feet resting on
one of my cats. Without Sasha, I wouldn't have had to undertake this painful, Skinnerian experiment of trying to turn myself
into a dog person.
I am a cat person. A lifelong cat person. During the 100 or so years I was single, I spent hours discussing my problems
in baby talk to my cats. (Through a heat pipe, I once heard my downstairs neighbors imitate one of these conversations.)
My clothing and furniture were always covered with a fine layer of fur. I rated potential suitors on their reaction to my
cats (a scale running from hostility to indifference).
Dog owners talk about the unconditional love you get from a dog. Unconditional love is one of those popular concepts, like
closure, that doesn't actually exist. Dog love is full of conditions: Feed me, walk me, praise me. Dog love grovels. One of
the things I admire about cats is that they are capable of love; they just dole it out when it suits them. As Churchill said,
"Dogs look up to you; cats look down on you."
Cats are so soothing. I once read that the purr is a healing mechanism for them, the frequency of it having an effect similar
to electronic stimulation for broken bones. But it's a healing mechanism for the owner, too. What could be more comforting
than having a purring cat nearby? Or more convenient than being able to go away for the weekend without having to do anything
more than leave extra food and water?
We have had cats for the entirety of my 6-year-old daughter's life. A year ago, when my 20-year-old cat, Sabra, finally
bid adieu, we got two kittens, Goldie and Biscuit. Our daughter initially appeared to be enchanted. But shortly after the
kittens' arrival, my then entirely preliterate daughter managed to write her first sentence: "I love dogs." I realized that
I had given birth to my sister. Somewhere in my genetic soup, my daughter had found the dog-lover gene.
On my sister's mantelpiece is a coffee-can-sized container, the remains of her last, miserable dog. Her passion has been
for huge, deservedly obscure breeds. For example, she had a Fila Brasileiro named Paris, a dog that looked like the missing
link between mammal and reptile. Its most prominent feature was an unstoppable stench. When I tried gently to point this out
to her ("Liz, your dog stinks!"), she would get defensive and say, "That's just the way dogs smell." But if that's
just the way dogs smell, then skunk would be man's best friend. Her other dog, an Akita named Knute, had a lifelong skin condition
of such virulence that my sister devoted, oh, 90 percent of her income to futile attempts at a cure.
So how did I go from happy cat owner, amusedly contemptuous of dog owners, to dog owner? My husband and daughter ground
me down in one of those emotional assaults that are usually characterized as "family life." Did it matter that I said, "Who
will walk the dog? Me! Who will take the dog to the vet? Me! Who will make dog-sitting arrangements on the rare occasion I
leave the perimeter of my home-office like some defiant Taliban wife? Me!"
As I began researching an appropriate breed for our family ("Who will do all the work of finding a dog? Me!"), it became
clear that the dirty secret of dog lovers is that they are closet cat people. How else to explain site after site, created
by dog fanciers themselves, that described their breeds as "excitable," "hard to train," "massively shedding," "not for the
allergic or those uncomfortable with dog smell," "needing constant attention," "not good with children." I thought the fact
that in the 12 or so millennia since dogs have been domesticated, none has been developed that met our needs was the clincher
for sticking with cats.
But this did not convince husband and child. Instead, I was persuaded to go out and look at actual dogs. Since I decided
I would not support the dog-breeding industry, I insisted we only look at incarcerated dogs. Going to an animal shelter with
a 6-year-old is an excellent exercise if a) you like driving home from an animal shelter with a 6-year-old sobbing bitterly,
"Why couldn't we get Punkin?"or b) there's not enough pathos in your life.
It was at a shelter that we encountered our first beagle, a sweet, tiny creature who had been found wandering. We put in
a request for it, but the owner retrieved it. We had now been programmed for beagle ownership, so we discovered a local group
that finds new homes for mistreated beagles and went to its adoption fair.
There's something about being surrounded by roomful of abandoned creatures that makes you realize you'd adopt a wart hog
under the right circumstances. When my daughter saw shy, scrawny Sasha (then known as Conchita), I knew I was headed for years
of late-night walks.
Sasha has lived up to the one promise the head of the rescue organization made about her: She was completely unhousebroken.
OK, we've gotten over that misery. But when we took her to the first session of our six-week dog-training course, I had one
of many cat-person-with-a-dog sinking spells when the instructor explained how dog training was a lifelong process. All I
could think of was the process of training our cats: "Fellas, here's your litter box." End of training.
Walking a dog has been a revelation. Who knew so many of my neighbors, most of whom I'd never seen before, owned dogs?
It was like discovering that at 11 every night, people all around me were running out to go ballroom dancing or attend
Communist Party meetings. There is also a strange etiquette to dog-owning: We don't introduce ourselves, just our dogs. So
Sasha knows Pundit and Woody and Linus, but I have no idea who their owners are. When you walk a beagle, you also find out
about half the population used to have a beagle when they were kids. Which makes me worry that a message went out
about 30 years ago—"Don't get another beagle!"—that I somehow missed.
So now I'm a dog owner. Given that Sasha was a year old when we got her, I only have 14 or so more years of late nights
to go. I have to admit she's wormed her way into my heart (although not while I was giving her de-worming medication). I even
forgive her for eating the phone charger, the entire family's slippers, and my favorite bra. (No, I wasn't wearing it at the
time.) As I was writing this, she crawled under my desk so I could rest my feet on her. If only she could purr.