NASHVILLE — It was a Saturday night, close to midnight, when the weird little cough erupting from our dog Rascal’s mouth stopped being a cough and turned into dramatic hacking. My husband and I looked at each other.
“Should we take him in?” I said.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
That emphasis on think, that small note of uncertainty, made me reach for my shoes. My husband can never entirely shake his rural roots. If you had tried to open an emergency veterinary clinic in small-town Georgia during the 1960s, people would have collapsed with laughter. The fact that he was even considering a midnight trip to the vet meant Rascal needed to go to the vet. That very minute.
At the clinic, though, every parking spot was taken. I poked my head in the door: “How long is the wait?”
Behind the front desk, a staffer sighed. “Hours and hours,” she said.
From the car, I called the other emergency vet. “Is this a life-threatening emergency?” the triage operator asked. I wasn’t sure. “Can he breathe?” He could breathe. “Has he had anything to eat or drink?” He had. “Then it’s not a life-threatening emergency.”
We took Rascal home. What else could we do?
It’s difficult to find veterinary care nearly everywhere right now, even when it isn’t an after-hours emergency. During the first year of the pandemic alone, Americans adopted new animals in record numbers: An estimated 23 million households brought home a new pet that year. But there aren’t enough veterinarians to care for all these new family members.
In many places, longtime clients can’t get an appointment for weeks, new pet owners are out of luck altogether, and people often take out their frustration on the clinic staff. As Sarah Zhang notes in a comprehensive explanation of the crisis for The Atlantic, the stress of this situation has driven veterinarians and vet techs out of the field in droves.
We were lucky. Our longtime clinic recently hired a new vet, so we were able to get an appointment for Rascal the week after our fruitless emergency trip. His hacking, it turned out, was caused by allergies; doubling up on his medication took care of it.
But add the difficulty of finding veterinary care to the already considerable cost and inconvenience of pet ownership, and for some people that pandemic puppy was already starting to look like a mistake. Then office life returned more or less to normal, and suddenly they were also dealing with the separation anxiety of animals accustomed to the constant companionship of people working remotely.
All of which is why the media ran a glut of reports last year about pandemic pets being returned to shelters. There were so many alarmist stories that the A.S.P.C.A. released the results of a reassuring survey that found that 90 percent of dogs and 85 percent of cats adopted during the pandemic were still in their homes a year later.
Now there’s a new rash of stories from places like Chicago and New York— and even Portland, Maine — where the housing crisis has hit especially hard. When there aren’t enough places to live, finding a pet-friendly apartment is even harder. And when prices skyrocket, people already living on the edge may not be able to afford the expense of a pet. It’s no wonder that shelter officials are dealing with a new round of animal surrenders: In one New York City pet shelter system, surrenders are up almost 25 percent over last year.
But it’s important to consider these numbers in the context of a mind-boggling economy of scale. The number of pet adoptions and surrenders fluctuates all the time, and for many reasons. Millions of pets ended up in shelters every year before the pandemic, and millions of others will end up in shelters even after the economy recovers.
It’s true that a family’s circumstances can change, sometimes tragically, but it’s also true that too many people bring home a pet having no idea of what responsible pet ownership entails. Too many others think of animals not as family members but as expendable lifestyle accessories — Vox even included dogs in an article about pandemic impulse buys that people now regret. That’s why adopting from a rescue organization frequently involves an arduous application process: The hope is that carefully matching people and pets will limit traumatic surrenders.
Even with ample resources, living with an animal of another species has never been trouble-free. Our family dogs have chewed up our shoes and our furniture, peed on our rugs, barked furiously at people we love, thrown up in our cars and eaten all manner of things that would have killed them if we hadn’t gotten them to the vet in time. They have dug trenches in our yard, galloped through our house with a child’s irreplaceable lovey clinched in their teeth, left muddy pawprints on our white sheets. For decades we have walked through the world with dog hair on every pair of black pants we own.
It’s all worth it.
I’m not even talking about the well-studied health benefits, though the health benefits are extravagant. A beloved dog will lower a person’s blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, calm anxiety, even make it easier to interact with other human beings. You may think this rambunctious, ravenous, apartment-destroying puppy will be the death of you, but adopting a dog actually lowers your risk of death. And it’s all because dogs will love you till the day they die.
After our Millie died last year, it was months before I felt ready to look for another dog, and by then I’d learned that I needed major surgery. The unexpected health setback didn’t dismay me nearly as much as the need to call off the search for our next family member.
“Now it will be months before we can get another dog,” I wailed.
“This is the perfect time to get a dog,” my husband said. “You’ll be happier, and you’ll get well faster if you’re happier.”
I don’t know if I got well faster, but I definitely got happier. Rascal sits in my lap while I read and curls up on my feet while I write. At his side, I encounter the world in a new way. “Big dog ahead,” his worried ears tell me. “Something remarkable passed by here,” his nose insists. Every morning he stands on the back of the sofa so he can watch the same birds I watch from my writing table, though his interest in those birds is more pernicious than mine.
The veterinarian shortage is years from being resolved, and so is the housing crisis, but neither is likely to dissuade people from adopting pets. Last month when the Humane Society of the United States rescued the first batch of 4,000 mistreated beagles at a breeding facility in Virginia, offers of help poured in from around the country. Dogs inevitably return the favor: One of the therapy dogs brought in to comfort children traumatized by the mass shooting at the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Ill., was rescued as a stray.
Day after day, from filling bird feeders to following wildlife TikTok to finding the itchy spot behind a beloved dog’s ear, we prove that human beings aren’t nearly as distant from the nonhuman world as we think we are. And any pandemic puppy could tell you that, using no words at all.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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