Devotion to our pets

Published 11:47 am Thursday, November 5, 2009

The car hit speeds approaching 200 miles per hour before the accident. It became airborne before the impact started tearing the car apart. In just a few seconds there was nothing left but the cage around the driver and hunks of twisted metal. Miraculously, the driver stepped away with only a few scrapes and bruises.

My cousin Robert has had a passion for racing his whole adult life. The crash several years ago caused him to rethink the level of racing at which he competed. He decided he could still have fun while driving at only 100 miles per hour.

He now competes against his 20-year-old son in a friendly, but serious way. They travel together to races in a massive pickup truck that reflects the macho attitude of one who does this as a hobby.

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Imagine my surprise when during a visit to his home last week he talked about the Pet Parades they have in their hometown of Opelika. Robert and his wife, Elizabeth, dress up their Pomeranian as a pirate, and their American bulldog as a ballerina.

There is something wrong with this picture. You really put that big dog in a tutu, I asked. Perhaps there is something about the fearless nature that it takes to race at high speeds that can help a man not be afraid to publicly put his dog in a dress.

I was trying to imagine what havoc there would be if I ever attempted to do such a thing to Harry, my Jack Russell terrorist. He would be scarred for life.

The truth is that we often become someone different when we are around our pets. We buy them expensive foods and toys. We talk to them like family. And we will do almost anything if they are seriously sick and in need of care.

An example of our devotion to animals is the growing number of pet owners that now buy pet insurance. That’s right. In a time of national debate over health insurance, we are extending that security to our animals at a growth rate of almost 20 percent a year.

According to National Public Radio, large corporations like Comcast and Home Depot now offer their employees insurance for their dogs, cats and birds. In larger cities, there are now veterinary specialists for almost any illness or complication. A vet hospital in a major city with an emergency room, ICU, neurosurgery suite and radiology room is not yet the norm, but is no longer unheard of.

There are now more than 20 vets in the United States that perform surgery on pet fish at a cost of up to $1,000. More than 60 vets in this country now specialize in pet dentistry, including root canals and orthodontics.

Despite the increasing costs, I have never really known a veterinarian that I thought was in the profession for money. They love animals or they would have never gotten in the field in the first place.

Dr. Jerry Mitchell met me at his clinic on Easter morning when I thought my dog had eaten rat poison. Dr. Cleve Bridges met me at his clinic late at night when another of my dogs swallowed a pork chop bone in one solid piece. Yet again, he met me despite being on the way to a family wedding when Harry was hit by a car.

Cleve has put my pets to sleep and cried like they were his own. He has poked and prodded, sewed up and fixed all that has been wrong over the years. It isn’t his expertise that always strikes me as much as the manner in which he can soothe a frightened animal. He will stroke their head and talk calmly to them in a way that reassures both them and me.

I can’t imagine Cleve doing a root canal on a Jack Russell, but otherwise I know Harry is in the good, caring hands of a true animal lover and that’s good enough for me.

Fifty-eight percent of American households have a pet at home. In the majority of those homes the pet is greeted before the spouse when returning home. Most hang a stocking at Christmas for the pet and include them in holiday or family photos. Over a third let their dog sleep in the bed with them.

There are 61 million dogs in this country, and we spend more than $750 on each of them for food, toys and treats. More than half of all pet owners stated they would want their pet instead of another person with them if they were stranded on a desert island.

Perhaps it is that sort of devotion that would lead a race car driver not to be afraid to put his dog in a tutu. Now if we can just locate that pet psychiatrist.

Dan Ponder can be reached at