Ever marveled at how much more livable your life is now that you’re lucky enough to have pets in it? Wondered how you could function without their presence? Yet you constantly field annoying comments questioning how much you spend on them, right? As if keeping pets was a mere luxury …


Driving to work early Sunday morning I caught a snippet of American Public Radio’s show, On Being. Among other ontological tidbits, the guest, celebrated poet and scholar Elizabeth Alexander, addressed the following question: Is poetry a luxury? 


Her answer, a thoughtful "no" to the notion of poetry’s ready dispensability for its elite or cushy connotations, was based primarily on its permanence as cultural touchstone through the ages. When did we not have poetry? This form of communication is purportedly as old as the earliest civilizations. Hence, it’s posited, we must harbor a quintessentially human need to engage in it.


Which, of course, got me to mulling over much the same with respect to our pets: Are they a luxury?


Excessive, indulgent, inessential, hedonistic, frilly, sumptuous, extravagant. Such are the adjectives the word, "luxury" denotes. None of which, I’d argue, apply to my own conception of the animals I keep as pets. Nor is it likely to jibe with your worldview of petdom — not if you consume animal infotainment, like this blog, on a regular basis.


After all, some of us don’t necessarily see animal keeping as a personal choice. We view animals among us as the result of the millennia old process of domestication — a complex, symbiotic relationship that serves as a significant measure of our humanity.


Which is perhaps why so many of us feel almost compelled to live alongside animals. This, despite the fact that with all our modern advances we’ve mostly "aged out" of keeping pets as ratters, hunters, and defenders (among other survival-based uses). Because, as the argument goes, there’s something so fundamentally co-evolutionary (about dogs and cats in particular) that we continue to forge lasting bonds with them in spite of the less pressing need to keep them close.


No, pets are decidedly not luxuries — not any more than anything else we might consider "essential" to our quality of life that can also be said to be a luxury. After all, we humans need no more than food, water, clothing and shelter to survive. All else is luxury, by that standard.


Yet, I’m also convinced the same cannot be said for all pet owners (we all know who they are). Nor do I expect everyone to agree that pet keeping can possibly be essential. Pets, they’ll say, are nothing more than a self-indulgent drain on personal resources.


Though, to rebut the naysayers, I might offer the case of the old woman whose only reason to get out of bed is to feed her cat. I do understand the reasoning of those who wonder how far we as a society should go to shoulder the expenses not only of our human citizenry, but that of their animals as well.


Because if animals are deemed essential, non-luxury goods, our social services would surely expand to meet the demand for low income pet care. Which is sort of where we’re headed … for better or worse.


Then there’s the other end of the spectrum within the animal crowd: The puritanical animal rightists who believe pets are the ultimate luxury, and that keeping them "enslaved" to humans is no less morally egregious than wearing their fur or killing them (in the case of wolves) from helicopters for sport.


Moreover, the fact that we can and do subjugate them to our will and call them essential to our personal psyches and to our need to thrive is an affront to their own physical and psychological welfare.


High-volume arguments from both camps aside, it’s clear the case is thick as mud. All of which only serves to make me ponder this gem all the more: If pets are a luxury, what does that say about veterinary medicine?



Dr. Patty Khuly



Image: Lux pup by Me