The other night my husband shared something very personal. It is something that has been present for the past two and half years and he has just now given it words. After a lifetime of considering himself to be a cat person, my husband has discovered that he is a dog person.
Midlife Animal Preference Conversion (MAPC) is not as uncommon as I had thought. The next day my friend reported that she, too, has MAPC. A staunch dog person, she was actually so pro-dog, she was anti-cat, and you know what they say about protesting too much. “I mean, I have even sent cat joke emails,” she confessed. Only in spite or, some might say, because, of her cat aversion, one has arrived at her house and twined its tail ’round her heart. “This cat is making me think that I might actually be a cat person. All of a sudden dogs seem so needy.”
I tell her about my husband. Everyone’s switching teams. I get the appeal of dogs, but I can’t imagine living without cats. I’m playing on both sides.
My husband and I both had cats growing up. We adopted as soon as we were out of school, and even in college there was D-U-G Dug (I named him), an orange tabby with a mean streak, who wandered around the Town Houses looking for food and more interesting or more violent people to hang out with; he was always itching for a fight. We were never sure about Dug, who owned him or what he was all about.
In London, we didn’t qualify for a pet through the RSPCA because we didn’t have direct access to the outdoors. Animals grow old and die in the Battersea Dogs Home, because, as the name suggests, they already have a home, thank you, and a more suitable one than yours, so sod off. We got our first London cat from a classified in The Loot. I took the tube out to a grim, grey street in East London and brought him home in an apple carton. We got him a kitten the following year. He has always been very devoted to her. We’re not sure if the feeling has ever been mutual.
Dogs, like cars, are impractical in a city. Oh, people said, when we were making plans to move to the US, are you going to get the girls a dog? What are we, we replied, the Obamas? They had just moved to the White House.
But the girls have always liked dogs. They have, I can see this in retrospect, been repressed dog people, living in a cat household. The older daughter went through a major dog phase. We learned how to ask “May I pet your dog?” in French as part of our small arsenal of vocabulary, like straw and vacuum cleaner, which they never teach you in school, not anticipating that you will travel with children or rent a house.
“Are you sure the verb is caress?” my husband asked nervously as the older daughter strode over to strangers in cafes, parks and markets.
The younger daughter really wanted a dog when we moved to America. In the same way that parents respond to requests for a guinea pig with, “But we have a fish,” so too, did “But we have cats” begin to sound a little hollow.
We got a dog.
We spotted the mother lolling by the side of a road as we were going to a friend’s house on the outskirts of this little town in the more agrarian part of Alabama. That looks like a nice dog, we all remarked, seeing dogs the way that women trying to get pregnant notice babies: everywhere.
“She just had puppies,” our friend said, “and I bet they’d let you have one. They’ve been giving them away.” And so we drove out of town an hour later, with a puppy, making an emergency stop at the dollar store for food. It was a bit like coming home from the hospital with the older daughter. I can’t believe they are letting us do this. We have no idea what we’re doing.
I found dog mentality a little frustrating at first, their need for hierarchy. We’d watched our share of The Dog Whisperer, which in retrospect should have tipped me off to my husband’s latent MAPC, and I knew that the root of all dog problems was the owners’ inability to establish dominance. Housebreaking was tedious, but the mental energy was in letting him know you were top dog. Cats just don’t care about all of that and throughout this business of puppy training they were like our elegant, childless friends, stretched out on the couch enjoying an elaborate cocktail while we carried dessicated meaty dog treats in our pockets.
You start thinking like a hackneyed sexist. Cats are aloof, capricious women, with psychic powers, slinking around in designer gowns. Dogs are boisterous, 9-year-old boys who will do anything to make the team and expect that you will be their firm coach who knows all the rules.
“Dogs are on your side,” my husband says. It is a revelation after he sees that the dog charging the cat when she reaches up the shred the sofa some more. The dog knows this is not allowed. She couldn’t care less. It feels good. She was bored. The dog is a great smelly beast and not graceful. Eats my food. And worse. I could go under the couch and get your tennis ball but then you would just run around some more.
“We’re never getting another cat,” he says.
We are leaving the farmers market when we see people in the parking lot of the Liquor Express with a box of tiny, brindled puppies, the mom on a leash. “Oh,” we all cry, “puppies!”
“Should we get one?” my husband asks.
“Yes!” we all shout. Even me.
“Ha!” he exclaims. “You would, wouldn’t you? You said yes.” I mean, it’s like the worst idea ever, obviously. Two elderly cats and a stable, happy dog. Let’s see, let’s push one or all of them over the brink of one thing or the other.
Later, when we are all bundled together on the bed—humans, cats, dog—it occurs to me that pets, cats and dogs, most animals, with their shorter life spans offer up a science fiction kind of tragedy, going from small, skittery kittens and soft, warm, wiggling puppies to old souls, with ginger tread and deep sighs, within the scope of a human childhood. More themselves than ever and moving past you and away to the end of their own days.