Scratching the itch isn’t always the right response.
Rachael had just returned to school at the University of Colorado and was excited, as a sophomore, to be living off-campus in a shared house with five roommates. Amid the excitement of a new year, though, there was the underlying angst of COVID and an ounce of homesickness. The thought entered her mind that she would like a puppy. She had gotten a betta fish to satisfy her freshman year pet-craving, but it was too much responsibility and she had persuaded a friend to take over care of the animal.
Rachel had seen cute Instagram photos of teacup pugs and she thought they were the most adorable dogs. She wanted one. Her first attempt to acquire a teacup pug puppy was a disaster. Rachel had gone where many young people go: to the internet. She found someone advertising a litter of teacup pug puppies. Rachael paid $600, but no puppy materialized. She’d been scammed.
Needing to satisfy the itch, she began calling all the pet stores in her area. She couldn’t find any teacup pugs but eventually found a store in a neighboring city that had a cute enough alternative: a Maltipoo. Her roommate’s older brother tried to talk her down from the puppy-buying cliff, mentioning that pet store puppies were typically sourced from puppy mills and that there were serious ethical problems with puppy mills. Not only that, but having a dog during college was going to be hard—Rachel would be busy with classes and social life. But she was undeterred.
There are so very many cautionary moments in this tale. But one moment that tends not to draw attention is the very first moment, the initial impulse—the craving for a dog and the spur-of-the-moment attempt to satisfy the craving—that set this puppy-buying ball in motion. I mean “craving” in the sense of trying to satisfy an emotional urge with a physical fix. American Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön writes in Practicing Peace in Times of War, “In Tibetan, there is a word that points to the root cause of aggression, the root cause also of craving. It points to a familiar experience that is at the root of all conflict, all cruelty, oppression, and greed. This word is shenpa” (p. 55). Shenpa is the “charge,” the “sticky feeling” that sits behind and drives our cravings, our attempts to respond to uncomfortable emotions.
Craving is what drives many “pet acquisitions”—a phrase I really dislike but which nonetheless reflects a certain type of interaction with an animal. When we are suffering, we do what we can to blunt the suffering, and for some of us, this craving takes the form of a desire for connection with an animal. Like any other physical or emotional crutch that we use to respond to craving—alcohol or sex or logging on to Facebook or Instagram—we scratch the itch, or to use Pema’s Chodron’s analogy, we bite the hook, we take the bait.
When I think back to my own experiences, I fit this pattern. I yearned for a dog when I was young. More than anything in the world, I wanted my own dog. This was partly because I loved animals but partly also because I was lonely. I was awkward around my peers. I lived in a loving and nurturing home, yet was a child in a house of grown-ups, where dinner discussion centered around Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and mandatory spelling quizzes (“S-u-s-q-u-e-h-a-n-n-a”). I was convinced that a dog of my own would make me whole.
That the urge to acquire pet animals often has roots in human dis-ease and existential suffering is borne out by the demographics of pet purchases and adoptions during the COVID pandemic. After lockdown started, animals began flying off the shelves of pet stores and shelter adoptions of dogs and cats skyrocketed.
This increase in pet ownership can be partially explained by people’s changed circumstances: being trapped at home, people have more time to spend with companion animals. But I suspect that many animals have been “impulse purchases” made in response to craving—that is, in response to emotional suffering. A recent issue of the Veterinary Record noted that “A quarter of new owners admit they bought their puppy during the COVID-19 pandemic after less than two hours’ research” (Vol. 187, Issue 4).
In some ways, animals seem like a perfect “fix” for emotional craving: they are warm and furry (some of them, at least), they elicit our caregiving responses, and we get positive emotional feedback in the form of hits of oxytocin. Animals lift our mood and give us a sense of being needed and being loved.
But it may be better for us and especially for the animals who we use to try to fix our suffering if we step back from the craving for a pet. For many people, getting an animal is not a satisfying response to spiritual or existential discomfort, or it is only satisfying for a brief time, until the reality of life-long responsibility for another life sets in. Indeed, it can take us into a spiral of guilt and shame and further discomfort when we recognize the inadequacy of the situation that we have created for another living being. In trying to patch the wounds in ourselves, we inflict wounds on another.
The practical upshot is that we should each examine our motivations before deciding to adopt an animal as a companion. We might ask ourselves to take a cooling-off period of a month or two or three between the decision to get a dog, cat, or other animal and the actual follow-through. If we expect our companion animals to fix our broken pieces and make us whole, we place pressure on them to be a certain way to make us feel a certain way.