How 'Secret Life of Pets' Helped Me Understand My Cat's Distress

It’s funny how the most seemingly insignificant things like animated movies can give you an “A-ha” moment. I recently saw “The Secret Life of Pets,” a cute movie about urban pets of all kinds and the adventures they get themselves into when their owners are at work. It centers around a contented little terrier named Max (voiced by Louis CK), and how Max’s life is turned upside down when owner Katie brings home a rescue mutt, Duke.

Because all animated movies must have happy endings, Max and Duke ended up BFFs and they all lived happily ever after. But real life is a different matter.

Max’s unhappy reaction to the arrival of Duke made me realize, in a way I never fully had before, just how complex are the emotional lives of animals, and how a change to their lives that we owners may not give a second thought can disrupt their very sense of security and identity. In particular, the introduction of a new animal into their home.

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My mother collected stray animals. Dogs and cats, but mostly cats. Her heart was too big for her own good (and our apartment). She believed she was saving these creatures from the street or the pound, and she was. Like the Katie character in the movie. These cats undoubtedly had far better lives in our house than they had before they found my mom. (To be fair, one kitten was my own “find,” and one dog we inherited when my grandmother died.)

But I witnessed the effect these additions to the menagerie often had on the pets we already had, and how their lives and personalities were sometimes never the same again. The social order was thrown out of whack. With one particularly sensitive cat, it resulted in escalating behavioral problems.

When we bring new dogs or cats into a home that already has a pet, we congratulate ourselves that we are “saving” another animal and giving it a loving home, which we are. But we rarely consider the impact on our other pet’s quality of life. Sometimes, when the animals are acquired very young, they can become best of buddies. But if the animal is older, it can make their lives miserable.

Case in point: I felt guilty that my two-year-old female cat, Teddy, was home alone all day while I was at work and assumed she was lonely. I adopted a little companion for her from a shelter. Turns out, Teddy was perfectly contented being by herself all day and loved being an only cat. She probably would have told me this if she could. But she sure told me after I brought the new cat home. She kept her distance not only from it but from me. She was so manifestly miserable, and made the new cat miserable despite its attempts to make friends with her, that I had to return the cat to the shelter, which broke my heart. (It found another home.)

As humans, our home may be our castle, but our house is not our entire world. A pet’s house, and maybe its yard, is essentially its world.

Imagine if someone told you you were getting a new roommate who is dominating and annoying, and you not only had no say in it, you had to live with them the rest of your life, sharing your bathroom with them and eating with them, all the time, and you could never move out. You also can’t get away from your unwanted roommate by leaving the house to go to work or a coffee shop.

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I be the only Queen here

As much as we might love to save every homeless pet out there, we have a responsibility to the pets we already have not to just care for their physical needs, but to try to make their brief existence happy and not introduce unnecessary stress into their lives. Bringing a new animal into the situation is a decision that should not be taken lightly. Sentient beings are not cars, motorcycles, or shoes to be collected.

It’s also not okay to get a new pet simply because you’ve grown bored with the old one and want a cute new furry face. Some situations are unavoidable, like when significant others or spouses move in together with pets. I would rather see pets cohabitated than abandoned.

A lot of people take the attitude, “They’ll just have to learn to get along, they’re only animals anyway.”  But pets care very much about their environment and their place in their human’s life and attentions. As every pet owner knows, each pet has a unique personality and is not fungible. I have yet to meet two that are alike.

Even after the disastrous experience with Teddy, I didn’t really get it. I thought it was her own personal antisocial issues. The Secret Life of Pets made me see it through their eyes.

Filed under: animal welfare, films, pets

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