Lately, I’ve heard far too many people scoff at those who love animals or love their pets. And as someone who literally cannot remember a time when I didn’t have at least one pet running around the house, this just grinds my gears.
I’ve heard people chuckle at those who have a deep love of animals, and at worst, I’ve heard the line “animals don’t have souls so they don’t go to heaven” as a way to belittle, condescend, and otherwise deflate the enthusiasm of people who love their pets. I’m not sure if they’re trying to show theological prowess, be authoritative, or are just downright mean-spirited, or what…
But I hear a lot of this from Catholics. Both in person and on Twitter, so… yikes. Let’s just get this out in the open air right now: it’s mean and insensitive to do this, and you aren’t winning any points for yourself or for the Catholic faith by doing that, so please just stop.
I’m not here to argue for or against the eternal salvation of animals, but rather to point out to the naysayers and the haters that pets can be incredibly good and beneficial for one’s soul.
FUR BABIES DON’T = HUMAN BABIES
Let me be charitable and say that many of the folks like those mentioned above are pushing back against a culture that saves dogs from the streets, but at the same time promotes the abortion of unborn children. The dignity of the human person CANNOT be understated and should NOT be placed beneath animals in any capacity. This should be obvious, and I guarantee you that most if not all Catholics would agree.
This is something the secular culture needs to understand and work on. If the culture is one that can easily discard human life through abortion, then how can we ever expect animals to be treated with respect and not abused and neglected?!
Having pets is, obviously, not the same thing as having a human child, even though we may call our pets “fur babies” out of affection. Of course, people can take this too far and can place their pets on the same level as they would a human… that’s where a line should be drawn. But I’d wager to say that MOST people don’t do this. MOST people just love their pets.
What does it mean for something to be “good” for the soul? From a Catholic standpoint I think something is good for the soul if it reminds us of the goodness and glory of God… if that something draws us further out of ourselves in self-sacrificial, authentic love and self-giving. It’s good for our souls if by loving and serving it, we become more virtuous, more patient, more gentle, more loving, and more grateful.
For me, at least, pets, and animals in general, do all of these things, and have throughout my entire life. Pets can bring immense joy to our lives and can teach us virtue in very profound ways. And that’s what I think those who belittle animal-lovers really miss out on.
Like I said, I’ve grown up around animals of all shapes and sizes. We’ve always had at least one dog and cat, if not significantly more, and I spent most of my childhood and teenage years horseback riding competitively on a national/international level. So suffice it to say that animals have brought more joy to my life than I could ever begin to explain in one blog post.
I found joy in watching my 27 year old retired horse Mickey grazing in his pasture, gently swatting flies and occasionally nuzzling my hand for treats. There was immense joy in the hours I spent training our Dalmatian Josie how to run through a home-made obstacle course, watching her face light up over each jump and around each turn. And there was immense joy in watching Cayden, a cat who came to us after having been hit by a car, go from a sickly, frail 8 pounds to a healthy, energetic and happy 12 pounds after months of rehabilitation.
Notice everything that brought joy in those instances had something to do with simply being — simply being present to watch Mickey enjoy retired life, safe and happy — and simply giving: giving of time and energy and patience to train Josie to do something she loved, and to bring Cayden back to full health. It isn’t an understatement to say that I received so much more than I gave in each of these situations.
There is a joy to be found in appreciating what God created — and that includes animals as much as it does a sunset or the mountains or the ocean.
Empathy & caring for God’s creation
Having a pet teaches us to care for that which is helpless and vulnerable. No, they aren’t humans, like I said above. But animals are God’s creation, too and — despite the fact that humans do have an inherent dignity that is superior to animals — I really don’t think we’re called to let dogs and cats suffer on the side of the highway, on the streets of our cities, and at the hands of abusers if we can do something to stop that and give them happy and healthy lives.
I am a strong proponent of kids growing up with pets for this very reason. Growing up with animals taught me responsibility in learning how to care for something that depends upon me entirely for survival. When my brother and I were in grade school, we learned very quickly how important it was that we be responsible in ensuring our epileptic Dalmatian with a serious heart condition got her necessary medications every. single. day.
That diligence has followed me into adulthood. Not only has it allowed me to continue to care for animals who are especially sick and unwanted (our family seems to have a knack for adopting the dogs and cats nobody else wants), but it also taught me empathy. It’s given me a big heart that can love and wants to love those who suffer, both human and animal. Can anybody argue that we need less of that in the world…?
Few things will teach you how to be self-sacrificial and love self-sacrificially quicker than a pet. Good pet ownership demands self-sacrifice. Anybody can buy a dog and throw it in their backyard (and sadly, too many people do this) but to truly be a responsible pet owner takes time, effort, and sacrifice.
Owning, loving, and caring for a pet the right way requires, at one point or another, waking up early, staying up with a sick pet, routinely giving medication, being patient with their health even when it’s taxing or annoying, and making the hard call to let them go peacefully when they’re suffering.
I learned this intensely in the final years and months of my time with Figaro, my first cat and technically very first pet. She lived to be 20 and as she aged, it took time and patience to keep her healthy and comfortable — giving her IV’s of fluids when she got dehydrated, ensuring she was eating enough, and ultimately, deciding to let her go peacefully in my arms instead of alone in a cage at the vet’s office.
Authentic love = Willing the good of the other
You don’t grow in empathy, self-sacrificial love, patience, etc. by default just by having a dog. Authentic love is willing the good of the other, and I think this applies to pets, too. Willing the good of your dog or cat means ensuring they are healthy and safe, whether it’s convenient or beneficial for you or not.
To the naysayers, I’m truly sorry you’re missing out on the joy that animals can bring to life. If you’re not into animals, I get it! It’s not everyone’s thing and they’re not for everyone. And that’s fine.
But as for me, I can say that my life truly wouldn’t be the same without the helpless little animals that have made their way into my life and my heart as beloved pets who have taught me how to love and give selflessly.