May 28, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Don’t Eat the Cat Food

Anyone who has visited my house knows we have two cats that we imported from Yerushalayim in 2006. (If you’ve ever had difficulty getting out of a country, it’s nothing compared to the hoops you have to jump through to get two cats out of Israel.)

We love our cats (my wife has made it painfully clear where I stand on the totem pole and let me tell you, I see the cats when I look up). Still, we know not everyone shares our fondness of most things furry and four-legged. Many times, we’ve shut the cats in a room when friends have come over to visit or for Shabbat meals. We certainly don’t mind at all and we’re happy to accommodate such requests (once, my wife tried to shut me in a room, too, but she claimed it was accidental).

The truth is, we’re the minority in the Jewish world. Most religious Jews don’t have family pets and many actually have negative opinions of them. Of course, my wife and I never judge anyone (it’s not for us to point out to people that they’re closing themselves off to true joy and happiness by refusing to own a cat or a dog). Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least comment on the phenomenon of apathy and sometimes antipathy that many Jews have toward pets.

I’ve often wondered why family pets are so scarce in the religious Jewish world. Sure, the chasidish and yeshivish velts might shun them because they hold to a gemara here or a tosefta there. But what about others? You might say it’s because religious families tend to be large with high costs of living (yeshiva day school isn’t getting any cheaper, nor is kosher meat). I suppose this is true. When faced with feeding a family dog or a child, I imagine most people would prioritize their child (I once fed our daughters cat food, but my wife didn’t say anything because no one noticed).

We have many friends who are afraid of cats, having grown up with this fear. Some friends recognize that it’s not entirely rational and they don’t want to pass it on to their children. Much to their credit, they’ve worked hard to overcome being scared and they and their children socialize with our cats when they visit. I won’t say these friends are better than our other friends who hate cats, but let’s just say our other friends don’t get gold stars and smiley-face stickers when they visit.

You might ask why bother trying to like house pets if you don’t already do so. Well, there are many reasons. For example, science has shown very clearly that there are physical and psychological benefits to having a cat or a dog. For example, pet owners often experience lower blood pressure. If you talk to them (the owners, not the pets; talking to your pets would just mean you’re crazy), they’ll often tell you that having pets has a calming effect on them and that it helps them to de-stress (just think how much easier it would be to manage your adolescent children if you could de-stress by petting a furball on your lap).

Having house pets of any type can also be very good for children. Children learn responsibility and empathy from taking care of animals. Feeding a cat or walking a dog teaches children to step outside their own world and learn what it means to care for someone/something else. How often do we get to fulfill the mitzvah of feeding an animal before ourselves? If you own a dog, you get to do it every day! (Otherwise, good luck explaining to Hashem after 120 years why you didn’t fulfill this mitzvah.)

Another reason to own animals is the knowledge that you’d be caring for a helpless little creature. Sure, our cats sometimes wish they didn’t have to endure our girls’ screams and frenetic playing around the house while they’re trying to sleep, but sleeping is overrated anyway. Besides, we know how much they enjoy having their backs scratched so I’m sure constant yelling from a 5-year-old and 7-year-old just falls off their backs like so many fleas in their fur.

By now, you’re probably thinking with renewed wonder about the idea of owning a cat or a dog (or a lizard or rodent of some kind or another). In your haste to run to your spouse and convince him or her to go immediately with you to the local pet store, I would like to encourage you to thoroughly research the idea first. This way, you can ensure that you’ll purchase exactly the right gerbil or the correct bird. After all, they aren’t all the same and the last thing you want is to buy exactly the wrong animal and then regret it later while you’re losing sleep because you bought a screeching barn owl before remembering you don’t own a barn.

Things to consider are how much time and money you have. For example, some dogs should really be trained, while cats blessedly don’t need training. Also, you may want to put up a fence around your backyard, especially for those icy winter months when you don’t want to walk your dog (gerbils don’t need to be walked…I believe). Ferrets make great, low-maintenance pets, and because they have long bodies, they can be used as bookmarks as well. Rabbits, while adorable, can be very odorous and typically need their cage cleaned out every day (think of the smell of ammonia, only much, much worse).

Well, I’ve just about reached my word limit for this article, so I should probably stop trying to convince you to purchase a pet. No doubt, you’re very excited at this point to go out and get one, not only for the physical and psychological benefits to you (I would be remiss as a psychologist if I didn’t again mention that pets benefit your emotional health), but also for your children’s sake. And, of course, you’re always welcome to come by our house and hang out with our cats until you get your own (just don’t eat the cat food because that’s reserved for our children).

Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental health treatment and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at [email protected], at 201-406-9710 or through his website at www.shovalguraryehphd.com.

By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, PhD

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