Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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You Don't Have to Own a Pet to Enjoy One

Pet Column for the week of November 28, 2005

Related information:

Services - Human-Animal Bond

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Kim Marie Labak
Information Specialist

I am the only student in my class at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine who does not own a pet. Yes, it's difficult to listen day in and day out to my peers telling me how "my cat did the cutest thing yesterday," or "I can't wait to relieve some of this stress and take my horse on the trail this weekend," or "my dog is the best footwarmer in the world," knowing that no fuzzy faces, wagging tails, or enthusiastic chirps await me at the end of the day.

I have chosen to be one of the "pet-less" because I understand the responsibilities that accompany owning a pet: a commitment of time, physical and emotional energy, and the financial ability to support the pet. Unfortunately, these are all things that are lacking in my current veterinary student lifestyle.

Animal lovers often find themselves in circumstances that are less than ideal for owning pets. Traveling or changing residencies often, working long hours, living in a very small apartment or a building that doesn't allow animals, having housemates or family members that are allergic to certain animals, or a lack of funds can all make pet owning stressful rather than enjoyable for both the pet and the person.

Although I do not have any pets at home, I have discovered many secrets to vicarious pet ownership. I get regular doses of fuzzy affection by being "aunt" to many animals, and this is only one of many ways for animal lovers to enjoy the friendship of an animal without committing to pet ownership.

If you have a relative, friend, or neighbor who is thinking of adopting a pet, you can tag along to choose the pet and share in the excitement of shopping for all the essentials--the bowls, the bed, the first bag of food, the squeaky toys. If you're lucky, you may get the title "aunt" or "uncle" bestowed upon you.

As an aunt or uncle of an animal, you get the honor of the owner's trust with their beloved pet, and you develop a long-term relationship with the animal. You will likely be called upon for regular pet-sitting, and you can offer to walk or care for the animal when the owner is sick or gets stuck late at work. I've visited one of my "nephew" dogs when the owner had late night meetings and simply didn't want the dog to be lonely for the evening.

Having a "niece- or nephew-pet" also gives you a reason to browse the local pet store to buy little gifts and, like having a human niece or nephew, you have the benefit of being the good guy, leaving most issues of training and discipline to its owners.

If you are in a situation that allows you to make a temporary commitment to a pet, fostering may be an option. Many organizations need foster caregivers for cats and dogs while they await permanent adoption.

If you just need a small dose of cold noses, volunteering at a local animal shelter can give you some hands-on time with animals. Sometimes pet store chains need volunteers to handle animals for special adoption days.

Organizations unique to your community may have unique volunteer opportunities available. For example, the University if Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana has a team of volunteers to spend time with oncology patients who have to stay overnight. Since many of these pets' owners may live hours from the hospital, the pet may have to stay for several days of treatment without seeing their owner, so hospital volunteers keep the patients from getting lonely, playing with and petting them.

Look for organizations in the community that help the elderly or infirm--these people may be pet owners, and may require assistance in caring for their pet.

For horse lovers, some stables may need volunteers to help groom, tack, and handle horses for non-profit events or activities such as hippotherapy programs that utilize horses for physical or mental therapy.

So, fellow animal lover, if you do not and cannot own a pet right now, you don't have to resort to wandering around the local dog park, trying to blend in while sneaking pats-on-the-head and occasional hugs from other people's dogs; you may be needed as a vicarious pet owner, dog-sitter, pet walker, aunt or uncle, foster caregiver, or volunteer.

For more information on volunteering with animals, or to find organizations that could use your volunteer services, contact your local animal shelter or your veterinarian.