Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Language of Pets

07:00:00 Posted by Ashley Lister 12 comments

By Ashley Lister

According to Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue, the French language doesn’t allow a speaker to make the distinction between a house and a home. To me, this suggests an unthinkable paucity of language which is probably the fourth worst thing about being French. (The smell would be third. The food would be second. Being French would be first).

Last Friday, just prior to setting off for the September get-together of the Dead Good Poets, I was startled by a strange noise coming from the kitchen of our house.

We’re a family with four dogs and one cat, so we’re used to strange noises. And strange smells. And strange substances. But there was an urgency to this sound that had my wife running. She got to the kitchen before anyone else, threw her coffee on the floor and went straight into the process of rescuing Spike.

Spike is the patriarch of our doggie family. He’s the sire of four pups (two of whom still live with us). After siring the pups, he also acted like a very modern and hands-on father by helping to raise his offspring. He cleaned the pups after they’d done their puppy business. He slept near them to provide warmth. He acted as a genial and furry protector. If his nipples had worked I don’t doubt he would have fed them regularly and it would have been healthy and delicious.

He plays the piano. Not very well. It sounds like a dog walking on the keyboard. But it’s more frequent piano-playing than I currently manage. And it’s always played in Spike’s distinctive style.

Spike also dances. It’s not exactly moon-walking. It won’t win him a place on one of the Strictly… TV shows. It’s a skittering, claws-on-the-laminate-flooring, crab-like-dance that could be easily mistaken for some sort of palsy. But I have to concede it’s better dancing than I do.

However, before you start thinking he should be renamed Saint Spike, I need to point out that he’s also an accomplished thief. Spike was the one who worked out that he can open the dishwasher door and use it as a platform to gain access to the kitchen countertop. Spike is the one who will feign sleep so someone will leave him alone in a room with a biscuit, or a coffee cup, or a chocolate bar.

And when my wife arrived in the kitchen, Spike was dangling from the knob of a cupboard door, suspended by his collar. It didn’t take long to work out what had happened. Spike had been trying to steal an empty cardboard packet that had once contained frozen food. It had been left on the counter by the side of the oven. Spike had been jumping up to try and snatch the empty packet from the counter.

By a million-to-one-chance, on his descent I assume, his collar had snagged on the knob of a cupboard door. He was dangling by his neck. He was scrabbling to get himself down. And he was probably wishing he had opposable thumbs.

Luckily he was OK. Tracy lifted him down. Spike limped as though he had suffered a real injury for almost a full two minutes. And then he began staring wistfully at the empty frozen food packet, as though asphyxiation might be a price worth paying for the chance to gnaw on an empty cardboard box.

Because of this incident the dogs are now collarless – a state that makes all previously collared dogs look curiously naked. I don’t know why it should seem obscene. But it’s hard to deny that they seem wayward and uninhibited in this decadent state of undress.

It’s a bit like Yogi and Boo-Boo, walking through Jellystone National Park wearing hats, collars and ties, but no trousers. Somehow that seems normal. Yet, if Yogi and Boo-Boo took off their hats and ties, there would be complaints that the two cartoon bears had gone inappropriately Brokeback Mountain.

Spike’s autoerotic asphyxiation incident comes in the same week that one of our pets was diagnosed with feline diabetes. Mo, the cat, is now on daily insulin injections. The cost of these animals, spiritually, emotionally and financially, is excessive and unending. And, when people ask me why we bother, I shrug and say, “It’s so I can live in a home, not a house.”

I guess you have to understand the language to get that.



Lara Clayton said...

Great post Ash.
I'm glad that Spike is OK, and I completely understand the home V house... My home would be nothing more than a house if Roo (my cat) wasn't present.

Roo wears a collar, and is extremely proud of it. I think it is probably something to do with him being a stray for about a year: unowned, unloved & starving. Once, he lost his collar - he cried and sulked until a new one was purchased and placed around his bare neck. He's scared of coats, will only eat Felix 'as good as it looks', bites our toes early in the morning, puts a hole in our new tub chairs and lacks the ability to purr - but I wouldn't change him for the world.

Ashley R Lister said...


Thank you. I loved Roo's picture on Tuesday. His markings are beautiful.

Just out of curiosity, what does a cat look like when he's sulking?


Lara Clayton said...

He wedges himself into a corner, lies like a sphinx and then sinks his chin into his paws. He ends up looking pathetic, which always results in me feeling sorry for him.

Monika Michalak said...

I am so happy that Spike is okay! Although,he looks very unhappy in that box.Teddy and Mischa always wear collars and I agree that they look naked with out them. Right now they are rocking Harley Davidson collars. I need to change them to Chicago Bears collars.
And I agree the costs are high -- they had check ups this week and it was over $400. Teddy has acid reflux. They are our babies and how can you put a price on that?

When Teddy wants something he will use a bar stool to get on the kitchen island -- where we also eat. Then he can't get down and will lay there and cry pitifully. Luckily Mischa does not/can not do that yet. Although she is braver in some ways. They add so much to our lives!
Monica VB

Barbara said...

Hi Ashley
That was a good read, thoroughly enjoyed it. I always take Tasha's collar off when she's in the house, not because I've thought about the safety aspect but to give her a bit of freedom. Luckily she isn't likely to hang herself anyway because if she wants something she just sits in front of us and stares with those big, round appealing eyes until one of us gets up and asks her to 'show us' what she wants. This inevitabley leads to her walking to where the tin of treats is kept.
Glad those scarey dogs of yours are ok. (Remember Tyrion up against the wall and that ear piercing scream?!)
Great post, you paint a vivid picture with your words.
p.s. If there are any spelling mistakes in this just ignore them. I used to get really agitated when people told me they had a degree and they obviously couldn't spell. These days I'm more sympathetic.....

Ashley R Lister said...


Roo sounds adorable whilst sulking. If you can take photos please share :-)


Ashley R Lister said...


Since writing this Mr Giles has been visiting the vet with eye problems.

As you say - the expense is tolerable because they're our babies. I'm just jealous that my babies have got more hair than I'm going to see again in this lifetime :-)

I love the image of Teddy stranded on the kitchen island.


Ashley R Lister said...


A part of me can still hear Tyrion screaming. She's got a healthy set of lungs on her.

And Tasha's method of controlling you sounds pretty effective. I think she's got you well trained.


Barbara said...

You're right there! She's got me wound around her little paw! Everybody in the park knows she owns me!

Lindsay said...

I can't keep dogs, Clives allergic to anything with fur, hence the chickens outside. I even suggested on of those wrinkly heairless cats to him but he said no they were too ugly. I grew up having them and can't help but feel something missing in my house :(

Ashley R Lister said...

Sphinxes aren't ugly! Admittedly, they look like they've been peeled, but that doesn't make them ugly :-)


Anonymous said...

Please never leave your dog alone whilst wearing a collar as a friends much loved pet was left in the car whilst she 'nipped in the shop'. When she came back just a few minutes later the dog was dead, strangled because its collar had caught on the window winder and it had struggled. Micro-chips, whilst not visible (and also not too useful for attaching a lead) are a much safer and permanent way of ensuring a safe return.