Pets. Be it dogs, cats, birds, lizards, alpacas, emus, ferrets, rocks – it doesn’t matter. Pets are a huge part of so many people’s lives, and the autoimmune community is no different. In fact, pets can be a Godsend for those who are ill and/or disabled, and I count myself among that number. Ollie, my Persian cat and resident doofus, helped me through one of the loneliest times in my life, and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to write about it.
I know many of you who don’t own pets probably have good reasons for not diving in. Lack of space and financial concerns are usually the top reasons why people don’t become owners, and those are both as good of reasons as any not to adopt. If you are able to own a pet but just have chosen not to, or you think as a handicapped individual you won’t be able to care for another living thing, let me convince you otherwise.
First, let me begin by saying that I was a staunch no-pet advocate for many years. My parents had an Old English sheepdog named P.C. Ann when I was growing up, and she was a true family dog. She kept an eye on the kids, she came when my dad called, and she never growled or barked unless you deserved it. It was my first and only positive relationship with a dog, and I was heartbroken when she passed after thirteen long years. In what I assume was an attempt to fill that hole, a few years later my parents embarked on a seemingly never-ending crusade to find the “right dog,” which I now know meant finding another P.C. Ann. Unfortunately the parade of dogs that came through the house over the next decade or so was about as far from “family dog” as you could get.
First we had “Baby,” a Chow, but he ate my cousin’s face and had to go. Next came “Max,” a tiny Yorkshire terrier that never, ever, stopped barking, for the love of God. So, after the earplugs didn’t work, off went Max, and we said hello to “name goes here.” This poor mutt who my brother took home from the local beer distributor only stayed for three days before my mother sent it packing, back to the store from whence he came. Oh, beerdog, we hardly knew ye. After that was a Labrador puppy named Max II (note Max I above), who was cute, energetic, and had a nervous bladder and colon. After a few months of turning my sisters rug into a toilet worthy of a major league ball stadium, Max the second became Max the unwanted, and someone on Craig’s List got a very expensive Lab puppy for free. After we vetted him, of course.
Finally, we had Cordy, a Scottish West Highland Terrier, who was white when we got him, but spent most of the rest of his life a dull gray. Plus, he was allergic to grass, which made for some very long summers for everyone in the house. As you can imagine, Cordy didn’t last very long, and after two or three years, he found a nice home with an excited family who had a huge yard. Cordy deserved it – we certainly weren’t giving him what he needed. After that came Percy and Ollie, and everything changed.
Percy was the pet that taught us to love animals again, and Ollie followed him shortly after. Not dogs this time, both Ollie and Percy were Persian Cats. After all the years of doggie disasters, my mother took it upon herself to find the friendliest breed of cat, and Persian kept popping up in her searches. So, she took a chance, and we ended up with two new members of the family – a family that always swore we’d never be one of those “cat families.”
Now, you might be saying the very same thing right now about how you aren’t a cat person, and cats are usually as aloof and unfriendly as my eighth grade “girlfriend.” Normally that would be true, but Persians seem to be sociable and smart, at least from my experience, and some even said our Percy is like a dog in a cat’s body. High praise indeed, but the real test was when my disease took a turn for the worse eight years ago, and I become a shut-in. I was ninety – that’s 90 – pounds heavier than I am now, and I could barely walk due to swollen feet. So, I hid in my room, of course.
It’s difficult to explain to some just what it feels like to live with self-imposed exile. It’s subtly different from being laid up, where you couldn’t go out even if you wanted to. No, self-imposed exile is different because, almost always, it requires a component of self-pity and disgust. I was no exception, and every time I looked in the mirror at the unnatural horror that my body had become, and the flesh clown shoes that my feet had morphed into, well, I knew that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near me, so why would anyone else. So, I stayed in, and because I quickly got tired of making excuses for not going out, I pretty much stopped talking to almost everyone as well.
It was a dark time in my life, and when I began talking to myself out loud on a regular basis, I decided that I had to try something different. So, I co-opted my sister’s cat, Ollie, who had been left to roam the halls of the empty house during workday hours. At first, I had to coax him into my room with cat treats, and then lock the door and force him to stay. In the beginning he’d spend hours upon hours hiding under my bed, secreted away in his little lair up inside my box spring. One day, though, he decided to plop down on my bed instead, and thus was born an unconventional friendship – friendship that, to be honest, saved me from some very dark and desperately lonely times when I felt utterly and completely alone. Anyone who has never owned a pet can’t possibly imagine just how much companionship an eight-pound animal can provide. Because we anthropomorphize our pets, we talk to them, treat them like we would other humans, and interpret their actions through the lens of human behavior. Now, Ollie may have really liked what I was saying, or he might have just been meowing because he was hungry, but it doesn’t matter – I felt like I wasn’t spending my isolation alone, and I had someone to share the horror and pain with. Turns out, it was enough to get me through.
So, as you can see, pets can play a vital part in mental health for those of us who are chronically ill, and even those who aren’t. So, you can’t take care of a dog, and then get a cat! Cats wash themselves, use a litter box, and require little to no maintenance. I’d not then get a lizard – my point is that I learned from experience that having a pet can greatly influence the mental state of anyone who needs a little companionship. So, march on down the pet store, and demand yours right meow!