IT STARTED WITH smacks at his sister each time he thought she was getting more attention. Then he’d dart out every open door to scale the 50-foot oak tree in the backyard; too scared to climb down, he’d sit and cry until benevolent neighbors with tall ladders came by to pull him out. But the last straw was when he began emptying the entire contents of his bladder on Rachel Slade’s bed — with her in it. Banished from the bedroom, he’d spend all night body-slamming the door.
Johnnie, you may be relieved to know, is a cat. He arrived in my editor’s home, along with his twin sister, as a tiny kitten from a shelter in Sudbury. Over that first year, and even after his neutering, Slade says that Johnnie was a “delight.” But then he came into his own. And was not nearly so delightful.
Not long after Johnnie turned into the “spawn of satan,” Slade came home from a weekend away to find her daughter’s mattress soaked with urine to the point that it was unsalvageable. That was it. She called the behaviorist at her local animal shelter. Much discussion ensued about food and litter boxes and cleanliness. And then the behaviorist asked whether Slade considered putting a plastic shower curtain over her bed. “At that point,” Slade says, “I was like, ‘Sorry, I’m putting the cat in a carrier and bringing him to you.’”
Few issues are more fraught than Americans’ relationships with their pets. We say they’re part of the family. We sleep with them every night and post their adorable faces on Instagram, sometimes more than our own human children. But unlike people, pets don’t understand the consequences if they fail to uphold their end of the relationship. That’s what makes it so difficult when they disappoint (or attack or destroy property or scare our neighbors). Yet we do evict them, very quietly. According to the ASPCA, nearly 6.5 million companion animals enter the US shelter system each year, most often for behavior-related problems. Of those, 1.5 million will be euthanized.
To break up with Johnnie, Slade filled out a four-page form of yes or no questions about his behavior. Did he do this? Did he do that? Yes, yes, yes. When she handed the form back to the shelter official, she braced herself for the “third degree.” It didn’t come. “The person at the counter looks at all my yeses and said, ‘And you kept him for that long?’”
One might ask, if pets are our family members, surrogate children, best friends, then how could we ever consider “re-homing” them? But after hearing the story of Johnnie, the very bad cat, I wanted an answer to a different question: Are we obligated to keep our pets even when they make us miserable?
THAT WASN’T EVEN up for debate 50 years ago. Back then, as much as we liked having Lassie around to keep our kids from getting stuck in abandoned mines, we hardly hesitated to dispose of her when she became inconvenient. Stranger, my husband’s family’s dog, used to rush to the front door to vomit on the doormat every time someone knocked. Stranger was also nervous around kids. With two small children in the house and a third — my husband — on the way, his parents decided to give Stranger up to a shelter. No one questioned their decision.
Bernard Rollins, the animal rights philosopher, wrote that he knew people in the 1960s who euthanized their family dog before going on holiday, reasoning that it was cheaper to just a get a new dog when they got back than board their pet. It’s also worth noting that through the 1970s, an estimated 90 percent of animals that entered the shelters were euthanized.
Attitudes shifted dramatically in the 1980s when pets began showing up in advertising; TV shows and movies featured anthropomorphised animals (remember Benji?); and animal rights, along with messages about responsible pet ownership, became part of the national conversation. Now our social media feeds are full of heckin’ good doggos and puppers, cute kittehs and cattos. We spent an estimated $72.13 billion on pets in 2018 alone, according to the American Pet Products Association, a figure that grows at least 4 percent each year.
Modern pet-person relationships can, and usually do, go very deep, says Dr. Hal Herzog, a psychologist at Western Carolina University and one of the founders of the field of anthrozoology, the study of human-animal relationships. According to a 2008 Pew Research survey, 85 percent of dog owners and 78 percent of cat owners say their pet is part of the family. They are our proxies, our surrogate children, our projects.
But sometimes our “pet projects” stress everything else to the point of jeopardizing domestic harmony.
In Herzog’s 2010 book, “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat,” he writes about a couple whose pair of high-maintenance Shiba Inus made them miserable. They paid a dog walker $300 per month just to get a few hours of peace. They couldn’t have friends over because the dogs barked constantly and tried to steal food off the table. And yet, the couple were genuinely attached to their dogs — they talked about getting rid of them, but just couldn’t.
“They stuck with those dogs through thick and thin. It wrecked their social life, it wrecked their house, it was a factor in the dissolution of their marriage,” Herzog told me. This couple also didn’t have children; the dogs filled that role. “Obviously, if you think of your dog as your kid, you can’t get rid of your kid,” said Herzog.
INDEED, AS A putative extension of our personal identities and our best selves, the modern pet — and our relationship to it — suggests that we’re entering new, as yet uncharted territory, and there’s a lot at stake to get it right.
When we adopt or buy a companion, we are primed to understand that we’re making a commitment, says Herzog. Kind of like a marriage. (Possibly too much like a marriage — 38 percent of dog owners surveyed last year say the “person” they show the most love and affection to in their house is the dog; only 23 percent named their significant other.) But given the novelty of this pet-human relationship, we don’t yet know exactly what that means.
Then again, unlike our pets, we can separate from other humans if their behavior becomes violent or objectionable or we find that we have irreconcilable differences. We can ghost. We can divorce. We can get restraining orders. We can freeze out “toxic” people in our lives. If we have enough money, we can banish recalcitrant teens to boarding school and college.
But companion animals can’t simply go their own way. We can’t talk it out to get both sides. They can’t explain their behavior (as much as Slade would love to hear Johnnie’s thoughts about peeing on her down duvet). “You can’t unfriend a pet,” notes Herzog.
And given the potentially life-or-death decision in surrendering a pet, pet breakups are highly charged. We all know people, my parents included, who have gone to great lengths to accommodate their pets because they don’t want to fail their animals or sentence them to death, due to an animal-human misunderstanding. Slade’s father spends all day playing “musical dogs” with his three pit bull mixes because one is so “nervous” that she can’t be in the same room with the others without the fur flying. That’s a big commitment; shuffling canines became his full-time avocation in retirement.
So there’s a lot at stake in these relationships: life, death, love, disappointment, and a shot at redemption. The Shiba Inu owners didn’t give up their dogs, even after the canines broke up their marriage. Herzog, in contrast, actually had to put one of his down. Adopted from a local shelter as a puppy, she looked like Benji and was clever and loving . . . some of the time. But, he says, “She turned out to have a real serious mean streak.” She “terrorized” their older dog and bit everyone in the family at least once. “We’re talking about bites that bled.”
When she bit a visitor, Herzog turned to some of the best dog trainers in the country for advice, but no amount of work could keep the dog from snapping. Finally, his vet suggested that it was time to consider euthanizing her. “It was one of the hardest decisions I ever made. I was in tears . . . that dog was pretty special and I liked her a lot, but she was dangerous.” Putting her down was difficult, but also a relief — she wouldn’t hurt anyone anymore. Herzog’s decision was made somewhat easier by the support he got from their vet.
A lot of the guilt comes from what other people — including animal professionals — think we should do with a problem pet. Remember Johnnie? “There was tremendous judgment among friends and family. There was an expectation that I would do all these things to accommodate the animal,” recalled Slade. “While talking to the behaviorist, I was trying to figure out: Are they trying to help me adjust to this animal as he was, or were they trying to make the animal more comfortable with me? What problem were they trying to solve? When they got to the shower curtain part, I realized the entire conversation was about convincing me to surrender my needs and live with the world’s worst cat.”
STILL, ANIMAL BEHAVIORISTS argue that we should spend more time trying to understand problematic pets. The more we know about animal cognition and emotion, they say, the more we owe it to our animals to use that knowledge to help them. And an entire industry has appeared to demonstrate how best to do that.
Jackson Galaxy, host of the popular Animal Planet reality show, My Cat From Hell, visits the homes of people who are struggling with their felines. He keeps his arsenal of cat toys and treats in a custom guitar case. The people on Galaxy’s show, who usually refer to themselves as the “mom” or “dad” of their cats, tearfully display their cat-scratched hands and legs and talk about their destroyed houses and social lives and relationships. They are desperate to not fail their animal, so they do their “homework,” build cat agility courses in their spare rooms, and learn how to speak feline. Usually, it works.
Galaxy’s show is part of the narrative that emerged in the early part of the 2000s, along with shows like “The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan,” “It’s Me or the Dog,” or “Dogs Behaving Badly” — that no animal is beyond redemption. Galaxy wants to help humans learn to have a “true relationship” with their cats. “In relationships . . . you engage in real emotional dialogue. . . it’s about investment,” he says.
Meanwhile, scientific research is demonstrating that animals, just like people, can suffer from mental illness, sometimes in response to the demands we put on them. Lux was the poster child for feline mental illness and Galaxy’s most famous client. The cat made international headlines after his Portland, Oregon, owners called 911 on him. Lux scratched their 7-month-old baby; the baby’s father grabbed the baby and kicked at the cat. Lux charged him. The parents, baby, and their small dog ended up holed up in their bedroom, Lux hissing, growling, and charging the door. First-responders caught Lux with a snare and bundled him into a carrier, but the owners stopped at letting the officers take him to a shelter. Not long after, they ended up on My Cat From Hell.
Lux had a history of sudden, unpredictable aggression, unlike anything Galaxy had heard before. “We did everything — we went to neurologists, trying to find out where things were misfiring, because his behavior was so off the charts,” he said. They tried medication, therapy, acupuncture, but, said Galaxy, “we couldn’t touch what was going on with him.”
Lux was the cat who convinced Galaxy that “mental illness is for sure a thing,” he says. “Why would we think otherwise? I’ve seen unbelievable suffering.”
Enter pharmaceuticals for pets: “I’ve seen incredible turn-around, what people would consider miracles because we’ve alleviated the suffering [with medication],” Galaxy says. According to one 2017 survey, nearly 8 percent of dog owners and 6 percent of cat owners gave their pet medication for anxiety, at a cost of around $8.6 billion a year.
Galaxy and others worry that we could reach a place where we’re “just throwing drugs at animals who are mentally ill to try to make them fit in our home.” But, he said, medication needs to be part of the conversation when it’s possible that it can relieve an animal’s suffering.
TIME-CONSUMING BEHAVIOR modification, costly meds, a succession of new litter boxes, broken marriages, days spent playing musical dogs: Should we give up pets that make us miserable? Are we making our pets miserable?
It says a lot about where we are now that many eviction stories have happy endings.
Galaxy decided that Lux wasn’t safe around the family, and found him a home with foster carers. They loved him, Galaxy said, but his violent outbursts landed one of them in the hospital. Lux ultimately ended up at an undisclosed animal sanctuary where he is allowed to live with his violent tendencies, but where he can’t hurt anyone.
Even bad boy Johnnie made it through: A few months after Slade dropped him off at the shelter, officials told her he’d been readopted and was happy in his forever home as the top, and only, cat.
But where we go next is unclear. We can’t blame people for giving up on a pet, especially when we don’t have the scaffolding in place to help them. And yet equally, if we say that animals are important to us, that they’re our family, and science demonstrates that they are capable of complex cognitive abilities and emotional states, then relinquishing them, knowing that it might kill them, is morally problematic.
The more we learn about animals — the more we force them into roles of friend, family member, surrogate child — the murkier become our obligations to them.
Maybe the solution is not keep pets at all. That’s not what Herzog is suggesting, but it is something worth considering, he says. “The paradox is that the more we think of animals… as autonomous beings that have emotions and wants, the less right we have to keep them as a pet.”
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a frequent Ideas contributor, is an American freelance writer living in London.