I grew up as an only child, across town from where I attended school, in a neighborhood without other kids. To make a long story short, I was alone — a lot. Fortunately, my parents were animal lovers. What I lacked in the form of human company, I made up for in animal companionship.
I was brought up with almost every type of pet you can think of. One of the reasons I lived so far away from where I attended school is because my parents had found a house with almost half an acre of property in the middle of the city of San Diego. To my family, moving away from our friends seemed like a fair tradeoff for a backyard the size of a canyon.
Since we were only a family of three, this huge backyard began filling up with pets. First it was dogs and cats, then my dad built an aviary and filled it with lovebirds. Then the pets began moving inside the house with a tropical fish tank for dad, and mice and hamsters for me. Pretty soon, I stopped begging my parents to move back to old neighborhood closer to my friends. I learned how to fill entire weekends with fun activities, just me and the pets. I can honestly say that I don’t feel like I missed out on anything.
Here are 5 lessons about being human that I learned from my pets.
When I was four, one of our dogs, Gretchen, bit me because I was trying to play with her while she was eating. To this day, that is the most serious injury I’ve ever had. My parents refused the idea of giving Gretchen away because of this incident. This allowed me to experience the process of forgiveness, for the first time, in order to peacefully coexist. Gretchen remained part of the family for another 10 years.
Pet ownership is a great way to teach kids about responsibility. Of course, parents should always oversee this process. For me, being in charge of feeding, cleaning, and exercise routines taught me volumes about how to be responsible. I was able to apply this kind of consistency to other areas of my life (like homework and chores), which pleasantly surprised my parents and teachers.
The concept of true loyalty is difficult for children to grasp until they see it played out in front of them. There were several times in my childhood when I would be playing way down in our huge backyard and hurt myself twisting an ankle. Every time this happened, one of our dogs would stay with me while the other ran up the canyon to get my parents. It certainly sounds like something out of an old Lassie rerun, but it’s true. Seeing this kind of devotion and protective instinct come from a source other than immediate family members demystified the notion of loyalty for me.
An inevitable part of being a caregiver to small animals (like fish and hamsters) that have short lifespans is loss. I first had to learn about mortality when Peter the mouse passed away after almost four years (a long life for a mouse). Although events like this are big tragedies for small children, they create “teachable moments” for parents to explain more abstract notions like death and mortality to their kids.
Having pets certainly taught me how to make sacrifices. Everyone understands the idea of sacrificing for the ones you love, and pets are no exception. I learned how to forgo things I wanted like toys or candy, and how to provide for something else. If my hamster needed a new ball, or more food, I had to spend my allowance money I earned for that week. Once I figured out the importance of being responsible, the lesson of sacrifice wasn’t far behind.
Although most people learn life lessons like these from other humans, such as siblings or neighborhood friends, I think it’s important to note that pets can teach you just as much as people can, and sometimes even more!
Jessica Ruane is a freelance blogger from San Diego, CA. She writes about self-improvement and animal advocacy. To read more of her work, follow her main client on Twitter or discover job opportunities on the company’s LinkedIn page.