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“That was Jack’s bowl,” my son says watching me pull the sparkling casserole dish from the dishwasher. I can feel the child’s laser beam stare burning holes into my skull. He is trying to compel me to turn around so he can gauge my expression.
Has 8 hours on a pillow softened me? Am I now more inclined to say “Yes” to the question of whether or not he can have a dog?
A fitful sleep has done nothing to help me mend the gap between fiction and reality: Is there a greater spoilsport than a mother who sees the fiscal pain of dog ownership as anathema to the childhood dream of having a pet?
Would that Jack had been a figment of my son’s imagination, an immortal dragon sailing on a billowing tall-ship to a far and distant shore where advances in veterinary medicine haven’t caught up with him yet.
Ah, but what’s this? The Land of Honalee Animal Hospital! I suppose even literary legends need a check-up once in a while: “You’re looking a little green around the gills, Puff. Take 2 Ativan and call me in the morning!”
It is the morning after Jack and I am un-softened. I continue to avoid making eye contact with my son and return the makeshift water bowl to the cupboard. Jack had been in dire need of refreshment when we found him at the park near our house. The friendly black Labradoodle-something-or-other, had crashed our spring picnic.
“He smells like burnt hot dogs!” Joe said, stroking the non-shedding hypoallergenic coat. They looked like the occupants of a Norman Rockwell painting curled up together in the shade.
“I don’t think those are hot dogs he’s been into,” I said.
Without a human to keep him from indulging his wild side, the canine had worked up a pungent patina. I suppose, given half a chance, even one of Kim Kardashian’s fur babies might roll around in some pooh. Tiffany collar be damned, this is fun!
Jack’s collar was of a plainer variety, but his name and phone number were scrawled across it in black letters. He mattered to someone; his people would be easy to find.
The afternoon sun was warm and the dog was panting, “Let’s take him home and get him a drink,” I said, “Then we’ll call his family.”
Of course, we weren’t 5 minutes into the rescue before my son began to imagine that we were his family. Joe was already making plans for their great adventures. Three hours later, though, the reunion with a grateful owner spoiled all of that.
But, within minutes, Joseph rebounded and began peppering me with that most pressing of childhood requests: “Can I have a dog, Mom? Please, please, can I have a dog?”
I know I’m not the first mother to kill this particular bit of childhood magic. In the past, the logic of no was led by the potential for mess in an otherwise tidy house, and the responsibility of daily walking and feeding.
In my case the Norman Rockwell tableau is much marred by the vision of a dog as a several thousand dollar veterinary bill in-the-making. Once upon a time a dog was a dog; today a dog is a fur-covered human without an OHIP card.
Is it ethical to own a pet if you know your financial threshold is basic veterinary care and preventive medicine? Ten years ago, I might have said yes. Now, I’m not so sure.
In a publication entitled ‘Fifi, Fido and Finances, The Cost of Owning a Cat or Dog in 2013’, the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA) estimates the annual cost of owning a 40-pound adult dog is $2,018—or $168 per month. The top 3 expenses: food, $619; pet insurance $538; and professional dental care, $407. That last one seems almost scandalous to me, but who am I to argue with the OVMA?
Of course these are the so-called basic costs—before anyone has had to weigh the choice between paying for Lassie’s chemotherapy and keeping a roof over Timmy’s head. Pet insurance is a tricky business and there are lots of exclusions and many claims are only partially paid.
The morning after Jack, I sit at my desk, but I still cannot escape the question of dogs. The Royal Doulton figurine next to my lamp stares at me now: She is a fashionably-dressed Aristocratic woman, circa 1920s, with an equally fashionable Afghan hound at her heel.
Will owning a pet, once again, become a luxury that only the very rich can afford? Am I the only party-pooper for whom the iconic story of a boy and a dog, like that of Jackie Paper and Puff, is undone by an increasingly unaffordable standard of pet care?
Suddenly, I hear footsteps. I can no longer avoid my son.
“Do you think we could at least walk Jack once in a while?” he asks. For the time-being, he has accepted that we will not be getting a dog.
“Yes,” I say, giving Joseph a hug, “I’ll ask his owner.” That much I can do.