Where's the Reciprocity in People-Pet Bonding?

By Bill Hall

Of all the hokum involved in pet ownership, perhaps the greatest fiction is the fabled "reciprocity" between pets and people. We give each other something, we are told. Maybe. But we give a lot more than those little bums do.

For instance, we work at regular jobs, partly to be able to buy them groceries. But there has hardly been a pet since Lassie who has held a real job.

I was reminded of that the other night when Alfie, who is part cat, came by the dinner table to beg for morsels as we ate. I say part cat because he is part Siamese. And Siamese are somewhere in personality and temperament between a dog and a cat. They tend to have more lively and friendly personalities like a dog. A lot of ordinary tabby cats, by contrast, are kind of boring, especially as they get older. They sleep a lot. And if they are affectionate, it doesn't show much. They are like the British in that respect.

People and pets who sleep a lot may, in fact, be fully affectionate. But it's hard to tell when they spend so much of their time unconscious. If tabby cats are affectionate, they mostly keep it to themselves. As they lie around the house, they are like a rug -- more decoration than good friend.

On the other hand, maybe cats aren't the only boring ones. After all, they tend to fall asleep in our presence, so I suppose we aren't exactly stimulating either.

Siamese cats and dogs seem to have more tolerance for boring associates than tabbies and Brits. Dogs are kind of like groupies around some favorite star. They will attach themselves to a given person and then maintain a state of rabid, deliriously happy fascination with that person.

If a dog bonds to you, he may doze off at your feet now and then, but the moment you get up and leave the room, he is awake and bounding after you.

The same is not true of most cats. The nap is more important to them than hanging out with some human sleeping pill like you.

Siamese sometimes differ a bit. For one thing, they tend to attach themselves mostly to one member of the family. And they pretty much keep track of you like a dog, following you from here to there. But they are halfway between cat and dog in that they will pad slowly out to greet you when you get home; they don't bound out to meet you, leaping and barking, hysterical with happiness at the very sight of you, the way a dog would. And thank goodness. It's bad enough when our dogs and spouses do that. It would look ridiculous on a cat.

Beyond a certain amount of affection and/or worship, there isn't actually a lot of reciprocity in pet-person relationships. Alfie's nightly visit to the dinner table to sit watching us eat reminded me of that fact. He eats our food but we don't get to, or even want to, eat his.

On a good night for Alfie, I might get a little sloppy, lose control of a nugget of tuna fish and let it fall somewhat accidentally to the floor. That's how Alfie, alone among our cats, has come to sit there like a famished beagle every night, doing the sad-eye bit on our psyches.

But of course, we humans never crowd our pets while they are eating, looking for reciprocal handouts from them. Their food stinks.

And we know from the television commercials that some of that stuff tastes a lot better than others because the announcers assure us that is so. This seems to tell us that announcers have tasted cat food and dog food. But you hardly ever see them eating it, so we know that human food is almost invariably better.

But the lousy flavor of pet food doesn't fool me. I know that game. I used to play it myself. There was once a time, when kids were still at home, when any quantity of orange juice in our house would disappear in 20 minutes. I never had any juice for breakfast -- until I learned that the kids hated tomato juice and I liked it. I like orange juice better but a constant supply of tomato juice is better than a chronically empty orange juice container.

Similarly, pets, who like our food and theirs, have somehow found a food for themselves that we don't like. Thus there is no reciprocity.

(Actually, dry cat food isn't bad if you soak it in orange juice.)



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