The Responsibilities of Pet Ownership

As a child I remember my grandfather collecting items of all types of which he never parted ways. His backyard was a wasteland of car parts, appliances and tools. Once an item was in his possession, he felt the need to retain it forever. In fact, I recall seeing some old rusted egg beaters in his shed. My grandfather was a classic hoarder.

Today the topic of hoarding has recently gained much attention - but on the animal side There’s even a popular television show that has captured a wide audience in which individuals who have an obsession for taking in animals are followed through their daily routine.

I recently crossed paths with the worst hoarding case I had experienced. Three weeks ago one of our shelter officers got a call that a small apartment had 17 cats trapped inside. The owner, a 78 year-old elderly woman who we’ll call Ms. Smith, had slipped in her home and been transported to the emergency hospital, leaving the cats alone and without care. The home was condemned and the cats were transported to me at the shelter for evaluation.

Most were sick and suffering from upper respiratory infections. Some couldn’t be handled, as they had never been out of the house. Others were thin and only a couple were healthy and tame. My immediate reaction was anger! How could someone allow these pets to live in these conditions? How was she able to live in these conditions?

From the shelter officer overseeing this case, I learned a lot about Ms. Smith. I learned she was basically broke. She used her small social security check to pay rent and feed her cats. Beyond that there was money for little else—she barely ate herself and burned candles for light. Ms. Smith sacrificed her basic necessities to get her cats veterinary care when possible. Surprising still was the fact that she was such a pleasant person. Moreover, she was very apologetic and embarrassed, completely aware that her situation had spiraled out of control. She had thought about asking for assistance but feared she would be judged too harshly. She contemplated finding homes for her cats but worried they would be abused or treated poorly. Ultimately, she signed her cats over to the shelter and asked only that they be given a humane ending. This was quite the deviation from normal hoarding cases.

I was so moved by the story that I decided to visit Ms. Smith myself. When she heard of my arrival she sat up with anticipation and tried to make herself presentable. She was frail and weak but spoke with enthusiasm about her cats. She gave detailed character descriptions of each and humorously mimicked some of their behaviors. Throughout our 45 minute conversation there was one burning question I held onto until the end – “How?”. She looked to the ceiling and her eyes slightly watered. “I’m not sure, dear,” she paused. “I suppose days turn into weeks, and weeks into months until one day you look back and wonder what happened.” I suppose we’ve all been there before. That moment we stop walking long enough to turn around and look back at the long road traveled.

Upon leaving, I offered the one thing she valued most in this life. I promised that when she was strong enough to leave the hospital I would have her favorite cat neutered, vaccinated, sparkling clean and waiting for her.

This story is somewhat of a departure from my normal articles. It doesn’t list any statistics or facts. It doesn’t arm you with any pearls of medical wisdom. But there is a valuable moral to this story. Pet ownership is a privilege and a responsibility. My mother once said that owning a pet is like having a child. But when a pet grows up, it never leaves the house. I wish more people would contemplate that notion before they breed, purchase, or even adopt a pet. Although Ms. Smith was misguided in her approach, I would like to spread a small piece of her genuine compassion and love she had for her cats across the collective pet owning world. There is certainly enough to give.

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Dr. Kwane Stewart, DVM graduated from Colorado State in 1997. He practiced small animal medicine in Southern California before becoming a shelter vet two years ago. He's since felt a rebirth and passionately pursues to reform our country's animal welfare system. He lives with his son, his cat, "Sushi", and his Doberman, "Diesel" in Modesto, California.

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