Am I Ready Part VII - Deciding The Pet’s Place in the Family

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Our personal inventory about our readiness as pet parents is moving along like a well-oiled locomotive. We’ve bravely addressed issues in our own lives and have begun to look at the potential repercussions of our choices on prospective pet adoptees.

This week, we’re about to chug around a bit of a tricky bend in the tracks. If not negotiated carefully, this curve could hurl us - and our animal companions - right off the rails.

The next question we need to ask ourselves and everyone potentially involved in the pet’s life is:

Are all family members on the same page regarding the pet’s place in the family?  

Valerie, a five-year-old pit bull, should have had no reason to fear that she would be tossed out of a car onto a South Los Angeles street corner almost three weeks ago.

Despite the the valiant efforts of neighbors and the non-profit Ghetto Rescue Foundation, Valerie died from her injuries hours later. Upon further examination by a veterinary technician, Valerie was dehydrated and had been sexually abused. Information obtained from her microchip revealed that Valerie was adopted just two weeks earlier from an Orange County shelter during a cut-price, “clear the shelters” event.

Aside from highlighting some disturbing outcomes from such adoption “specials,” this story is an extreme illustration of how some humans do not consider their pet as part of their family. If Valerie had compassionate advocates in her family, their voices were drowned out. In effect, the decisive members of Valerie’s “family” saw her as no more than a used battery or a disposable paper plate.

Stories of pet dumping or surrender that never make the headlines may be less dramatic, but no less heartbreaking. Consider the 30-something suburbanites, their two children and their 13-year-old lab who is losing sight of their property’s boundaries, losing the sound of human voices and losing control of her bladder. “Mom” wants to see to the lab’s care for the remainder of her life while “Dad” does not want to expose the children to the decrepitude and death of their once vibrant playmate. Such disagreements can tear families apart, leave children traumatized and cast out once-loved companions to face a bleak end. This scenario and others are, unfortunately, common in the pet surrender world.

Even if everyone is in agreement on having a pet, the status that pet enjoys in the family hierarchy can be very different in the minds of individual family members. One person may see the family dog or cat as a furry human while another views him as an animal occupying a lower rung on the species order. One may harbor visions of a family bed while another mentally prepares a place for the dog bed in the laundry room. 

Stark differences in perception can have long-range implications on the pet’s welfare. Will the pet be brought along to the next home if the family moves? What about health care? Who decides when “enough” money is spent and it’s time to “let go” by surrender or euthanasia?

Beliefs, preferences and attitudes regarding the pet’s place in the family can vary by gender, geographic location (urban vs. rural) and socioeconomic class.

However a pet is accepted into the home, the boundaries of care, devotion and cohabitation should be throughly discussed and be generally agreed upon.

Some issues may be be negotiable. Others may not. If there is serious disparity between family members, that family should not adopt. They’ll save themselves the pain of family rifts and give a deserving pet a place in someone else’s family album where everyone is more or less on the same page.

Please check out Carol Mither's excellent opinion piece in the New York Times: Are We Loving Shelter Dogs to Death?