Love and Loss: What Children Learn from Having Pets

The last time we took the whole family back to New York, my children were handed money and gifts wherever they went. Grandparents and great-grandparents were making it rain and when my husband and I protested, they would insist. “We never see them! Let them take it and buy something they’ll like.” We returned home and what they liked was a dwarf hamster.

“You’ll have to wait to ask your father,” I told the girls as we left the pet store that afternoon, and since their father didn’t get home from work till after they were asleep, I thought it was entirely possible they would forget about it.

The first words my youngest spoke that next morning were, “Daddy, can we buy a hamster?”

Whereas my husband owned pet hamsters while growing up, I did not. I had heard many a tale of how whenever his aunt came over he would pretend that his hamster was in the plastic running ball. He would shout for her to look and then he would throw the ball (sans hamster) down the stairs resulting in his aunt having something resembling a coronary attack.

“Please, Daddy. Can we? We’ll take good care of it.” I knew he would say yes.

That afternoon, our girls pooled their money and we came home with a dwarf hamster they named Sugar and all of his accoutrements.

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I did a little research and learned a few interesting tidbits about dwarf hamsters. In addition to finding out what fresh foods we should and should not feed him, I also learned that they run the equivalent of four marathons each night. If it weren’t for their stubby little legs, they would be one of the faster species on Earth. Our hamster preferred to begin running whenever my husband and I settled down to watch Netflix at night, often resulting in having to disable his wheel until we were ready to retire to bed.

The other thing I learned about dwarf hamsters is that the average life expectancy is only about two years. That didn’t seem very long compared to, say, my cat whom I had for nearly seventeen. Not knowing how old the hamster was when we got him, I often found myself peering hesitantly in his cage during the day, looking for signs of life. Was his fur moving? Could I see the rise and fall of his little belly while he slept? I hadn’t studied a sleeping body this closely since I first brought home a newborn. They both seemed as fragile. 

While there are other hands-on methods for checking for life, there was no way that was happening. As a member of the rodent family, there were some strict rules regarding the hamster. 1) Mom doesn’t clean its cage, and 2) Mom does not touch it. While I thought it was rather cute, it wasn’t cute enough to make me want to cradle the thing in my palm. If the kids wanted to hold him, they’d better ask their dad. And other than that one time that the dog knocked over its cage and I was forced to trap the hamster before it ran under the couch, I stuck to those rules.

We are a home of many animals, but I’m not really an animal lover. My husband acts shocked if he ever catches me petting one of our two dogs. I loved my cat, but cats are assholes, which is probably why I prefer them. You can leave them alone and most times, they’re okay with that.

We got our first dog when our first born was about a year old, and most of why I agreed to it was because I believe that pets are good for children. They teach them so many things: responsibility, kindness, companionship, discipline, and most of all–they teach them about love and loss.

Over the course of my children’s lives, they’ve said goodbye to several goldfish, a crawdad, a hermit crab, and two cats. One cat “ran away” to live with another family; I suspect a family of coyotes, but I didn’t share that part with my then three-year old daughter. My cat, Milo, was put down the Christmas Eve before last. It was difficult saying goodbye to a companion who had witnessed nearly two decades of my life. He had seen me marry and have children. He had let those children pull on his tail and decorate him with tiaras and beaded necklaces. We all loved him, and he had loved us back.

Recently, when my husband mentioned that Sugar had been awake all day, running on his wheel, I thought, that’s strange. In hindsight, that day of running must have been his last hoo-rah, the sudden burst of energy and alertness one experiences at the end of life. The following day, when I told my daughter to clean the cage, she took it to the counter in the kitchen, opened the door, and lifted the little house.

“Sugar must be really tired,” she said.

Shit. 

Peering in at him, his fur was not moving; there was no rise or fall in his little belly. It had been about two years, and our hamster had died.

My little one cried. In between giant tears, she lifted her head off my chest.

“Mommy, I want a guinea pig.”

Oh, hell no! Now a kitten on the other hand…

Later that evening, we each said a few words about Sugar before my husband buried him in the flower garden. The word my youngest chose was family.

I never wanted my children to grow up not knowing about death. Things we love leave us. Sometimes that happens at the end of a life, but often times, it just happens. Dealing with loss may not ever get easier, but in having pets, my children will grow up knowing that when you love something, you do all you can to give it a good life, and at the end of that life, if you can say that you’ve done that, then you’ve done your best. No one can ask for anything more.

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