In my life, I have always had cats. And I have always talked to them. First, it was the playful jibberish of a six-year-old's imagination, then the secrets of teen angst and eventually, a mutual understanding in silence as my pets and I grew older together.
I tell my cats every day that I love them, that their paws smell good, that they are my best friends, the loves of my life and that I am glad, so glad, they happened to me. Never once have they said anything back, and never once have they needed to.
It goes without saying for me that cats are my passion. I am an animal lover through and through, but for cats there is a special place in my heart — a place that jumps to life every time a feline comes through the treatment door.
Dogs are a different story. I have been pining for a pup of my own for the last decade or so and I gush whenever I see random dogs on the street, but truth be told, I'm kind of afraid of them. And during my first month at , I realized I really don't know how to talk to dogs at all.
I spent my introductory week at the practice tip-toeing around the jumpy, slobbering creatures. I had been around dogs before, of course, but not nearly enough to know what they were thinking, or when they might bite. In an effort to look like I knew what I was doing, though, I put my fear away and jumped into the world of dogs with both feet.
I went about handling them as best I could and the only way I knew how — which, apparently, was like cats. I knew that I was a novice by the way I too-gently restrained nervous patients and the lighthearted laughter of a co-worker who told me I was letting the canine beasts boss me around, but I truly realized the error of my ways when I found myself cooing and clucking for a dog's attention.
A gentle voice and some coaxing go a long way for a cat, a creature for whom commands fall on deaf ears. As any cat's human will tell you, it's the kitty who owns you — not the other way around. Dogs, on the other hand, love and need to be told what to do.
I'm still no professional canine wrangler, but over time my timid voice grew louder, my restraining arms stronger and my commands more confident.
I thought I was finally learning how to talk to dogs, but just when I had gotten the hang of it, I found a lump on one of my favorite boarding patients.
She was a beautiful, middle-aged golden retriever with a sunny personality and unbeknownst to me, she had cancer. The lump would not be removed, I was told, because she was already dying. A few weeks, maybe, was all she had.
That day I took her out to the yard, where for the first time, we did not play ball or tug-of-war. Instead, we sat together in the shade and I began to talk. I gave her a hug and told her she was a good dog who didn't deserve her fate. I told her that it would all be okay and that I would remember her. Then I told her I loved her, to which she responded by offering me her paw.
Some may not believe that animals can understand us, but if there was ever a time I knew they did, that was it. And I found in that moment that I knew how to talk to dogs all along, because the language of love and the bond between human and animal is universal.