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  • Writer's pictureSheila Norton

Is Your Pet a Toddler or a Teenager?

We all love our pets; I hardly need to say that, whether they’re dogs, cats, rabbits or any other kind of creature. But however much we love them, just as with our kids, we also sometimes find them hard work, annoying, or just plain perplexing! I’m definitely no expert, nor do I have any answers about the countless different ways our little furry friends can frustrate or infuriate us even while we adore them. But over the course of the past fifty years, I’ve enjoyed the companionship of several different types of dogs and cats. And I have a theory: In general, I think having a dog is often like having a baby or a toddler in the house. And having a cat can be like having a teenager!

Difficult toddler or moody teen?

Dogs. That waggy tail, those spaniel eyes, that endearing way they slobber all over you and follow you around the house: who can resist a gorgeous, playful puppy, or a full-grown faithful dog who will be your devoted disciple for ever - even if he's sometimes messy or has the occasional tantrum? Well, if you’ve had children, you’ll remember only too well the early days of their infancy through to toddlerhood, and I think you might agree that there are parallels!

A dog, like a baby, looks upon his human carer as his personal god, from whom flow all his needs: food, drink, play, exercise, clearing up of his mess, (which while very young he’ll deposit wherever the hell he wants), love, care, and patience with his moments of stroppiness. And yes, we also give them boundaries. Dogs, like young children, need discipline and (in theory!) respond well to training. Of course, the truth is slightly different! While some dogs – and some children – are obedient, willing to conform to rules, and generally easy to manage, we all know personal examples of both who would sooner eat their own excrement (and sometimes do) than do as they’re told!

I wouldn’t be so unkind as to give examples of human children who are like this, but our lovely Springer Spaniel, Sophie, was a prime example of canine disobedience! She was so full of life, so exuberant and charming and Devil-may-care, she quite frankly wasn’t going to waste a minute of her fabulous life, thank you very much, in listening to boring commands like sit, stay or wait if they interfered with whatever was her desire at that moment. It was often either the pursuit of a rabbit or (ridiculously, as she never understood that they flew and she couldn’t) a bird; or else the intention to jump in a stinky, muddy pond or ditch and cover herself in green slime! When she wanted to, she knew quite well how to obey our commands, but no amount of furious reprimand on our part would ever wipe that Spaniel grin off her face when she’d misbehaved. And of course, we loved her to bits, despite all that!

Sophie enjoying her life:

We all know kids like Sophie, I’m sure . . . but usually, (we hope), they grow out of their difficult behaviour as they grow up. Dogs sometimes do, too, but not always! However, a dog of any age will be always need you, and always be endlessly loyal to you in return, throughout its life. They will always want to be with you, follow you around, and need you to provide their food, as do young children, whereas cats can hunt for their own if absolutely necessary. And just like little kids, dogs need to be taken wherever they need to go by their human carers, or they’re likely to run into roads, get lost, or cause trouble of some sort. Whereas cats can, once they know their way around outside their home, generally be allowed to roam free and trusted to come back.

Love you, Mum!

Cats! Well, again, who can resist them? That tiny fluffy kitten with its so-appealing face. The sleek beauty of an adult cat who curls up on your lap, or on the rug by the fire, purring in contentment. Do you get the same loyalty and devotion from your little feline companion that you get from your dog? Ha! Do you, heck! Like teenagers, cats stay with you because it suits them – because, deep down, they know you provide them with a superior and easier standard of life than they’d get if they tried to fend for themselves – and yes, they love you for that. They love the fact that you love them.

But is there a single parent alive who doesn’t remember the casual slamming of the door as your teenage son or daughter goes out – that slammed door, a message clearly saying: ‘I’ve got my own life, it’s boring here and I don’t need you.’ But don’t we also remember that same teenager coming back, giving you a hug, and asking when dinner’s ready? Or coming home from school upset because someone’s said something nasty to them – knowing you’re going to comfort them, say all the right things to make them feel better, and give them the courage to go back out there and face the world again?

That’s what my cats do all the time. Off they go first thing in the morning, as soon as I open the cat flap – out to enjoy themselves without a backward glance. Two minutes later they’re back in, pacing the floor, asking for their breakfast. Thanks, Mum, they say as they rub themselves against my legs while I’m putting the food into their bowls. Then Bye, Mum as they’re off out again. And yes, when something’s upset them – perhaps the dog next-door, or a strange cat, or even a sudden heavy shower of rain they hadn’t bargained for – they’ll dive back through the cat-flap and run to me, their tails twice their normal size, their pupils wide with fear. Help, Mum – pick me up, give me a cuddle, make it go away!

And likewise – despite all their determined attempts at independence, all their frustrating behaviour, nothing is more rewarding than those moments when your teenager lets you know in their own way that they still love you and need you, however reluctant they might be to admit it! The same is so true of the outdoor cat, who comes home to you for his dinner and his security, but also then deigns to jump onto your lap for a cuddle or nuzzle you with his little pink nose and tell you, in his own way, that he appreciates what you do for him.

Again like teenagers, good luck with trying to train or discipline a cat! Human children don’t learn how to behave unless the lessons are taught early. But cats come to us as ready-made adolescents. Their mothers have already taught them all they need to know: how to be a cat. How to perform their ablutions without soiling their own home, how to wash themselves, and how to hunt. (The latter is something most of us wish their mothers had forgotten to do, but unfortunately, the instinct is inborn even if mum isn’t much of a teacher!).

The dog, of course, is a pack animal: hard-wired to follow its leader, look up to them and stick to them through thick and thin. Young children likewise thrive in a family pack, where they understand that an adult is the boss, and like the trusting faithful dog, feel safe and happy as long as they can see their adult carer.

Dogs look up to their pack leader - human or otherwise!

The cat, though, is an independent creature – or he likes to think he is, just like our teenagers. But when a cat forms a relationship with humans, even if on the surface it appears to be simply one of convenience for him, we cat lovers know it’s an immense privilege and compliment to fulfil the role of cat-parent. It’s a loving relationship but one that lets go, one that respects that the loved one needs space. We’re happy to see our little feline come and go, enjoying his life in his own way, just as we did with those tricky adolescents of ours! But he comes back to us willingly, and loves us despite himself, just as they did.

See ya later, Mum!

I’ve loved all my dogs and cats. I know some cats will behave in the way I’ve described as dog-like – particularly if they’ve been kept as indoor cats. And of course, some dogs will behave the way I’ve described as typically cat. I don’t have a preference between them as ideal pets: both are great: for companionship, for fun, for our physical and mental health too. But I do believe we have to treat them – just as we treat our children – as individuals, whatever their breed, whatever their nature. No two are alike. My current two cats – full siblings – are as completely different in natures as are my three daughters. That’s what makes it interesting – and fun. Happy dog- or cat- parenting!

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