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Caring for Your Pets in Hard Times
Even in hard times, pets and people provide for one another

When my husband Greg and I decided to have a child, we figured we would make things work by sharing the responsibilities. What we did not anticipate was Greg shattering his leg in a serious motorcycle accident when our son was five weeks old. Suddenly, I was taking care of an infant, six animals and my husband in a hospital bed while I was still recovering from major abdominal surgery (C-section). With no family nearby to help, all of the responsibilities landed on me.

I was determined to tend to everyone’s needs before my own, but I was stretched thin. On top of the stress of being a brand new mom, I worried about how my animals would adjust to less attention and time. Our four-legged “babies” include two wonderful mutts and four great cats. Clyde, our Malamute/Retriever mix, had been hit by a car and left in the overnight drop box in an overcrowded shelter with a broken hip. Star, our Rottweiler mix, was found stranded near a freeway and rescued by the same organization that saved Clyde. Our four cat companions were all adopted from rescues and shelters, too. After all they had been through before joining our family, and the joy they had brought to our lives since then, I did not want to do them the disservice of putting their needs on the back burner.

Luckily, all of the pets accepted our son wholeheartedly. We took small steps to properly introduce everyone, and the animals and baby received a lot of praise. We made sure to pay attention to the animals’ body language, and gave them breaks when things got too overwhelming.

The one responsibility Greg could handle from his hospital bed was holding the baby while I took the dogs for their walk around the neighborhood. I felt that it was very important to keep their walks consistent. Even if I was tired and had had a difficult day, the walk is what they looked forward to most.

Every day, I made an effort with each of the animals. Even though I was strapped for time with having to care for everyone, as well as commute, work, cook, feed, clean and change the ever-producing dirty diaper machine, my animals were also my family members, and I needed to set aside some time, even if it was a small amount compared to what I had given them in the past. In response, my animals showed me they were thankful to be a part of my family. Star even tried to happily lick my son’s hands and feet at every opportunity (a loving gesture, I am sure, but one that did not exactly thrill me given her frequent investigations of the litter box).

Throughout this ordeal, my animals watched me cry and go through a range of emotions: sadness, exhaustion and frustration. Yet they still loved me unconditionally. They never once asked for more than I could give them. I will always be grateful to my pets because they taught me so many lessons in life: genuine love, patience, understanding and how to be nurturing to all members of my family.

I have worked in the animal welfare field for over 10 years, and have seen thousands of animals surrendered because their owners’ life circumstances changed. I understand how difficult it can be to give your pets the same level of care when your life has been turned upside down, and I sympathize with anyone who is forced to make that choice.

My husband and I were hoping our circumstance would be temporary, but at the time of his accident we were not sure if the doctors were going to be able to save his leg. However, after six surgeries and multiple physical therapy appointments, things were starting to look up for Greg and our family. We were thrilled at the news that he would be able to keep his leg and possibly walk again without crutches or a cane. I was incredibly thankful and relieved, as well as hopeful deep down that he would be able to help out more as he continued to heal.

There is still a long road ahead, with more surgeries to come. However, what I learned from my initial experience is how forgiving and supportive animals can be during difficult times. My pets stuck by me through my crisis, and their non-judgmental love gave me strength. I know it will continue as we face other hardships along the way.

I hope my story inspires other families in tough situations to do the best they can for their animals. If you can make even small adjustments, you may be able to keep your pets in your home and out of the shelter where they may not get a second chance.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 62: Nov/Dec 2010

Katherine S. O'Donnell is Director of Development and Communications at the Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society in Berkeley, Calif.

Illustration by Thorina Rose

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