Pets, etc.: Alternatives to Cats

I write a lot about cats. They are the most entertaining of animals, with the most befuddling actions, the most expressive facial and body language, and the most comforting presence. But we’ve had experiences with other sorts of pets too. They’re not as endlessly fascinating as cats, especially our new little guy, Toby, but here are a few stories so they (well, their owners, really)(1) don’t feel left out.

My husband is a cat person (and a dog person too), but he’s really responsible for most of the other kinds of pets who’ve lived with us. When we got married, he came with a set of hermit crabs that lived in a terrarium. They were a little disconcerting because they made odd clicking and scrabbling noises at night. Dan claimed they were constructing a secret missile base, and I can’t prove he was wrong.

That’s about all there is to say about hermit crabs. They’re really not all that interesting as pets go, though if they ever completed that missile base, I would have liked a tour.

Another terrarium-based acquisition was a hedgehog which he named Codger for his sparkling personality.(2) I believed Dan got him to punish me for taking a vacation to Michigan without inviting him along.(3)

On the internet hedgehogs are cute and wear adorable hats or curl up in muffin tins.(4) Codger was not adorable. He was a surly little bastard. His entire repertoire consisted of growling, snarling, and rearranging the furniture. He had a little hedgehog house and a ball to amuse himself with, but all he seemed to do was push them around.

Dan claimed that his spiky pet was so unlovable because he had not raised Codger from a baby. Apparently hedgehogs do better if you socialize them to humans when they’re young. I suggested that Dan try to interact with him, but Dan’s idea of interaction was poking him with a plastic fork. Dan explained that Codger had poked him enough times, so it was only fair.

Once our family included the hedgehog it became more difficult to find someone who would care for the animals if we went away for a few days. It’s relatively easy to find someone to feed and water and play with cats and dogs. It’s a little tougher to find someone who will feed a surly bastard live worms and clean out his habitat while threatened with poking.(5)

And now for the other most popular pet in America ā€“ dogs. Perhaps surprisingly, Dan and I both had dogs while growing up. Ours was really the family dog, not anyone’s personal dog. First there was Blackie, and then there was Bootsie.(6) They lived in the garage, exercised on a chain attached to the garage, and ate Gainesburgers. They saw the vet once a year for a rabies vaccination.

I know that nowadays this would be considered animal abuse.(7)

Dan and I once had a dog named Karma, a stray German shepherd mix.(8) We decided it would be karma if his owners found him and karma if they didn’t and we kept him. Hence the name.

Two of my favorite memories of Karma are the time he needed to go to the vet and we needed to provide a urine sample. Dan, always inventive, attached a glass jar to the end of a long stick and walked the dog, strategically placing the jar under Karma’s pizzle at the apropos moment. It worked beautifully.(9) My mother said that she would have paid to see that.

Karma’s other notable behavior was burying bones. You might think this is quite an ordinary thing for dogs to do, but Karma buried rawhide bones straight up and down, with one knobby end sticking up out of the ground, presumably so he could find it later. Our back yard looked like a rawhide graveyard full of tomb-bones.(10)

Our next, and current, dog is Bridget. She was a feral stray puppy that Dan rescued from his workplace when she was trapped and scheduled for extermination. We always tell people that her mother was a golden retriever and her father was a traveling salesman.

She never quite got over being feral. She prefers to live on our deck, where she can see into the house, but not have to interact with anyone inside.(11) (She has a dogloo with cozy blankets, a sun awning and a basement condo, which she hates, for icy weather.)

Dan tried walking her once, but when she saw another dog, she cowered and peed all over Dan’s shoe. We are the only people who can get near her.(12) Bridget once came within sniffing distance of Dan’s friend John, who was a master of the Zen technique of standing on the deck, smoking a cigarette, and Pretending There Is No Dog.

Bridget is getting old now, and has already had one operation for cancer.(13) When she goes, I don’t think we’ll get another dog, though of course that’s up to the universe. Karma, if you will.

What other pets might we have someday? I guess if I take another solo trip to Michigan, I’ll find out.

(1) Don’t get me started on whether we own our pets or they own us or they are family members or we are pet parents with fur babies and similar semantics. I would probably vote with Jackson Galaxy ( that we are “pet guardians,” though I have been known to address various felines, even full-grown ones, as “Baby-cat.” Just not around people who have human children, unless I know them well.
(2) I would put a footnote here about pets resembling their owners ā€“ uh, guardians ā€“ but Dan wouldn’t appreciate it.
(3) I don’t quite know why I think a hedgehog is punishment for a solo vacation, but there you have it. I never said my thinking was always rational.
(4) It may or may not surprise you to learn that baked hedgehog was considered a delicacy by noted jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. We did not try this with Codger.
(5) In point of fact, Dan’s friend John was the only volunteer ever. I think they had snarling contests, or maybe decorating competitions. We had to supply the live worms, which I always liked to claim we got at the bugstore.
(6) Hey, we were kids at the time. Think of all the cats there are named Miss Kitty. I got better at naming later.
(7) Although I think the pendulum has swung a little too far the other way, now that we have refrigerated gourmet pet food and Kitty Caps toe covers.
(8) Mixed breeds now are just getting silly. “Labradoodle” is a funny word, but there is no earthly reason for a shih tzu-poodle cross, except someone wanted to call it a shitz-poo. (Which is actually pretty great when I think about it.)
(9) Okay. “Beautifully” isn’t quite the right word. Maybe “effectively.”
(10) Sorry. (Not really.)
(11) When the deck door is open a bit, she and the cats will play a round or two of “I’ve Got Your Ear.”
(12) Her ferocious-sounding bark scares off meter-readers, but if they come into the yard, she hides under the deck.
(13) We did have another pet once, a parakeet named J. Alfred Prufrock (see “The Bird Who Spoke Cat.” We once got an operation for him when he was sick. Try to find a vet that will do that. There aren’t many.

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