It doesn’t take long to discover that there are dog people and nondog people. The latter don’t understand when I talk to my “kids” — as I often refer to my toy poodles — Cappuccino, 12; his “daughter” Biscotti, 7; and Campari, almost 1. My fur-babies are an integral part of my daily life. I’m told we even look alike, the same reddish hair color with the same wavy texture. They sense my moods, never judge, know when to play and when to comfort me. My holiday cards feature them, and friends always ask how they’re doing.
I adopted each of my poodle kids at about eight weeks, shortly after they were weaned. Each time I weighed the pros and cons of adding to my family. After all, I have a full-time journalism career, time-consuming hobbies such as figurative sculpture, and a full social and travel schedule. But there always seems to be room in my heart for one more “fur kid,” and somehow I always make room at the top of my daily schedule as well. That includes time for schooling, healthcare, grooming and play. My commitment is not only one of finances and time, but an even greater one of emotion. My kids have an amazing capacity for love, and we develop lifelong bonds.
When I was a kid, dogs were generally considered pets and relegated to the basement or backyard. When one died, you replaced it with another, as if they were interchangeable. Not true today. Perhaps because more people are living alone, often at great distances from other family members, for some of us, pets are family. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), almost one in three American families owns a dog.
In some families, like mine, the taboos of generations past have gone by the wayside. I consider it de rigueur, for instance, to trade licks of an ice cream cone with any one of my fur kids. Sometimes, though, public displays of affection to which I’ve become accustomed will shock onlookers. I was sitting in an airport lounge with one of my kids last year, engrossed in TV news, when a gentleman asked, “Excuse me, ma’am, don’t you know that French kissing went out with French fries?”
But dogs can bring out remarkably frank behavior in others. Strangers stop to flirt with them, and don’t hesitate to ask the most intimate questions: “Does he sleep with you?” “Don’t you roll over on him?” “Does he attack your lover?” Now what politically correct passerby would make such an inquiry about a two-legged kid? But since you asked, every night is happily a three dog night.
We vacation together every summer by a lake in western Maine where the kids swim, boat, and chase chipmunks and frogs in the woods. When my friends proudly show off pictures of their children and grandchildren, I’m one of the 40 percent of pet owners (according to the AKC) who pull out photos of their fur kids. And with other pup parents I exchange thoughts on sibling rivalry, healthcare, nutrition, education, play dates, haircutters and baby sitters.
Friends plan lavish puppy showers to welcome my new arrivals; jubilant birthday parties and festive holiday celebrations naturally follow in time. The little ones love to get special treats and toys, and, like any kid, delight in pulling on ribbons and opening gifts as well. Even when traveling on assignment, I find myself one of the 40 percent of pet owners who, says the AKC, call home to talk to their fur kids. I also seek out pet boutiques so I can bring home a special treat, even though they have a nursery with dozens of squeakies and stuffed animals not unlike those I collected as a child. Each has an extensive wardrobe, too, including sweaters, raincoat, boots, sun visor and life jacket for boating.
I feel a little like the Pied Piper when I’m in an airport — a fur kid is a magnet. Human kids run up to ask name and age, and whether they can pet him. But I’m amazed at how many parents ask, as if of a wind-up toy, “How much did he cost?” There’s only one answer: “He’s priceless.”
When I must leave them “home alone” I rely on Animal Planet, their favorite TV network, to entertain them. There’s debate about whether dogs have the visual acuity to make sense of the pixels in a television picture; new research in Australia says some breeds do, others don’t. But all dogs like to hang out where their favorite people are, and often that’s in front of the TV. Which doesn’t quite explain why, lest I forget on my way out, Campari sits in front of the TV persistently barking until it magically goes on.
He’s my latest. And he came to me far sooner than I expected because of the death of another, Amaretto.
I was devastated when at age 2, Amaretto, a seemingly healthy pup and Cappuccino’s “grandson,” was discovered to have a serious health problem. While playing with the other “fur kids,” on several occasions he dropped to the floor unconscious.
Beginning in puppyhood, I’ve taken each of my kids to Dr. Lee Morgan of Georgetown Veterinary Hospital, their personal veterinarian, for regular checkups and when they’re just not feeling right. He examines them, administers treatment as necessary and reassures me. All of my kids have health insurance. Since I want them to live long and healthy lives, I would never skimp on treatment regardless of cost.
And there was a serious cost with Amaretto. Each time he went into spontaneous shock, I put my life on hold and frantically rushed him to the pet emergency room, where he was given oxygen, IV fluids, X-rays and blood tests. That’s where the saga of veterinary visits to specialists throughout the country began. He was given diagnostic tests and treatment that resembled both in cost (almost $2,000) and in service what is available to full-fledged humans. Finally, Morgan confirmed through a special blood test a severe case of von Willebrand’s disease, a genetic clotting disorder that is rare in toy poodles. It’s similar to hemophilia in humans; Amaretto was missing a substance that helped the platelets form clots. Any minor injury could be life-threatening. A simple bruise could cause him to bleed to death.
I had to watch him very closely. Because he tipped the scale at just over 2 pounds and was trained to travel in a comfy shoulder bag, he soon became something of a mama’s boy. I took him everywhere with me. Not only did we both enjoy our time together, but I could also keep a close eye on him that way.
Amaretto and I took a weekend break in New York, as we had many times before. But this trip ended differently. I was packing to catch the Delta Shuttle back home to Washington, D.C., and Amaretto was entertaining himself — and me — by chasing his squeak toy. Suddenly, he took a tumble and went into spontaneous shock. This time even the Animal Medical Center couldn’t save him. I remember crying to the emergency vet, “Do anything, do everything to save him; he’s the love of my life.”
I’ve never felt so helpless or been so devastated by grief — not over the loss of parents, grandparents, friends, lovers or older fur kids. This was different — losing a kid not yet 3, full of vitality, a constant companion. I’ve considered each of my poodles a family member, but there was an extraordinary vulnerability about Amaretto. I felt he was truly a soul mate.
Although my other fur kids licked away my tears, trying to comfort me, in the long months that followed, they moped around, too. After all, they had an empty spot in their hearts for the little guy who had brought so much love into their lives as well.
To lose a fur kid who was a valued companion, who has shared ups and downs, joys and sorrows, and life experiences too numerous to count, is as great a loss as losing any family member. At the urging of close friends, I sat shiva as we do to mourn a loss in the Jewish religion, and caring friends baked cookies and sent donations in his memory to pet charities. Fortunately, time enables us to go on and love another, but you never forget. Just as each human child is different, each fur kid is unique, with his own distinct qualities that endear him to you.
I agree with “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz that “happiness is a warm puppy.” So six months later, I decided to adopt Campari — but only after he’d had extensive genetic testing. I used my journalistic skills to find out all I could about each of his parents. There are never guarantees, but I wanted at least to minimize any known risk for premature heartbreak.
Knowing that Campari had big pawsteps to follow in, I promised myself not to compare the two kids, but unfortunately, some well-meaning acquaintances do just that. To me, each is special in his own way. Campari, now 4 pounds, is almost twice Amaretto’s size, and though he’s also a very affectionate “port-o-pup,” at the same time he’s very curious, independent and a rough-and-tumble rascal. His enthusiasm for an outdoor workout is infectious and inspiring. Most importantly, he’s in excellent health.
My kids know not to disturb me when I’m working, except for an occasional and always welcome kiss. Right now, they look angelic snuggled up together at my feet under the desk, as if they know I’m writing about them. But every so often one will jump on my lap or look at me with expressive brown eyes begging to be picked up. After all, what’s a lap dog for?