Reigning cats and dogs: how our pets dominate us
A ''Pet Survey'' is being conducted by the editors of Psychology Today, and we can see the fur flying now! A couple of sample inquiries:
''Circle all that apply. I talk to my pet . . . 1. In baby talk. 2. In brief words or commands. 3. In a conversation. 4. As to a confidant. 5. I never talk to my pet.''
''Circle one answer. I consider my pet . . . 1. A child. 2. A sibling. 3. A parent. 4. Some other family member. 5. Not a member of the family.''
Would anybody in this audience dare answer such inquiries with a nice bold pen, in broad daylight?
The editors are clearly on the right scent. American pet owners don't regard their animals as animals. If they did, would there be such accessories on the market as sunglasses to protect dogs in fair weather and umbrellas to attach to their collars in the rain?
Would cookbooks be extended beyond all known ethnic specialities to include ''The Secret of Cooking for Cats'' and ''The Growling Gourmet''?
Would designer-name mink and sable coats be created to encase the little four-footed darlings - without, of course, concealing the diamonds in their collars?
Would home improvement magazines feature articles with titles such as, ''Build a Sunroom for Your Pet''?
If you ask us owners why we acquired our dog or cat or boa constrictor, we have our rational answers ready -like, ''It teaches the children responsibility.'' Two-legged hypocrites! Don't you believe us!
The fantasy of American pet owners is that their animals are like people - only better.
The survey should ask not only if we talk to our pets but if we think our pets talk to us.
Every dog owner worthy of the name believes that his or her Rover speaks by tail-wags and eye-winks in a code so sophisticated, alas, that not even the CIA could break it.
Furthermore, Rover can tune in the PBS station on the TV set with his teeth. Only he won't do it for you. Rover is so smart he can tell you're a skeptic, and that makes him as shy as it makes him sorrowful.
Rover can also compute square roots as high as 81. This astonishing trick - well beyond the capacities of your own children - you have, in fact, witnessed. Rover delivers the correct answer mostly around midnight, right under your window - barking nine times as regularly as clockwork.
If every dog owner believes his or her dog is Lassie, every cat owner believes his or her cat is Garfield. One's Felix is so intelligent he doesn't even trouble to respond to the stupid suggestions of human beings, such as, ''Come, kitty, kitty.'' Cats just stare like disappointed schoolteachers, visibly thinking in a cartoon balloon: ''Wise up!''
We believe, nonetheless, that our cats, despite their clever pretense to the contrary, love us deeply, as do our dogs certainly, and probably our snakes.
The intensity of our own feelings for them can embarrass us. Do we feel this way about people?
Mention the amount of money the nation spends on nuclear missiles, and a lot of people, without too much blushing, will explain to you why every last trillion-dollar in the defense budget is necessary.
Mention the amount of money the nation spends on 150 million pets - $6 billion annually - and we stammer into apologies.
It is as if we are more embarrassed at being soft on animals than tough on people.
When satirists point out that $6 billion is more than the people of a lot of third-world countries spend on food for themselves, embarrassment turns into moral chagrin. And it should. Still, the fact that Americans spend more per capita on alcohol and tobacco than most people in the third world spend on food ought to embarrass us more. For although our anthropomorphic infatuation with our pets can be ludicrously sentimental, it proves, at least, that we have a heart.
Today it beats for Rover and Felix. Tomorrow, the world?