I used to be a cat person.
When I was a kid, I always owned cats. There was Frank*, the orange tabby we adopted in Kingston. There was Sinbad, a slightly psychotic white Persian barn cat that we unsuccessfully tried to rehabilitate. And when I was in grad school studying Reformation history, I had cats named Calvin and Zwingli – something even my professor thought was pretty nerdy.
I didn’t have cats for the love they provided. Cats, after all, are a little unhinged – purring in your lap one second, and the next digging their spiky murder-mittens and needle-teeth into your exposed flesh. Let’s be honest – if house cats were any bigger, they’d be illegal. The fact that they can’t sink their teeth into your calf if you’re wearing jeans has probably meant the difference between being considered a family pet and being considered a public menace.
For a lot of my life, having a cat suited my style. They may be furry little serial-killers, but cats are independent. When I was in school, or when I was commuting to downtown Toronto, having a cat was the perfect arrangement. For the commitment-phobic, cats provide the bare minimum of companionship in return for the bare minimum of effort.
Then, years later, my son decided we needed a dog.
Things had changed in the meantime. I now had a job close to home, so I didn’t have the excuse of being unable to walk the dog. My son was 11, and responsible, and he said he would take care of the dog. And I was getting married, so there would be another adult around when – inevitably – my son broke his promise to take care of the dog, which, of course, he did about two weeks into owning the dog.
The puppy we eventually got was a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel – which is a grand-sounding name for a something that was smaller than a ball of dryer-lint. In fact, Shine – a name that is a cautionary tale for parents everywhere who think it’s a great idea to let the 11-year-old name the dog – is basically cat software running on dog hardware. She sleeps a lot. She hides when it’s time for walks. She doesn’t purr, but with a few lessons, she probably could.
And yet, having a dog is different. Dogs are an amplifier for love. They are the opposite of cats that way. When you put love into a dog, the output of love from the dog is exponentially greater than the input. Dogs care if their owners are upset – but cats only care if you’re sobbing and forget to re-fill their food dish. Dogs are always up for a party. For example, if you get excited, jump around and clap, a dog will get excited, too. On the other hand, a cat will roll its eyes like you’ve lost your marbles. Dogs are members of the family. Cats are clinical and detached observers of humanity. Dogs have human parents. Cats have owners – if even that.
For me, this journey from cat-ownership to being part of a dog family raises an interesting question. Did I become a different person, and got a dog because I had changed? Or did having a dog make me a different person? Because who I was when I owned cats – a little aloof, a little suspicious of people – is not who I am anymore. Today, I’m more outgoing. I’m a hugger. I’m more . . . doggy.
C.S. Lewis once wrote: “We treat our dogs as if they were ‘almost human’: that is why they really become ‘almost human’ in the end.”
But I think there is even more to it than that – I think God places animals in our lives to teach us about our humanity. That in the act of owning a pet, and caring for it, and letting it care for us, we see one more aspect of the divine. We get a glimpse – a furry glimpse – into what pure, unfiltered and unconditional love looks like.
*All pet names in this article have changed to protect their identity.