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Coronavirus Is for the Dogs

Pets provide a simulacrum of friendship. COVID reveals just how sad that really is.

Who doesn’t love a feel-good story about dogs? How about an entire section of your newspaper devoted entirely to man’s best friend? You’re in luck, because TheWashington Post’s September 8 print edition featured a special insert entitled: “Dog Days: How Canines Became Indispensable During the Pandemic.” One might think family, neighbors, or perhaps religious faith might have proved the essential, oft-overlooked salve to quarantine life. But no—Fido, in all his friendliness and faithfulness, is the key to happiness in 2020 America.

Perhaps the Chinese zodiac cycle—according to which we are currently (and aptly) in the “Year of the Rat”—requires revision. “Shelter’s nonprofit rescues, private breeders, pet stores—all reported more consumer demand than there were dogs and puppies to fill,” notes one WaPo article. Yet the Wuhan Flu has been hard on dogs too, explains another. “Pets are finding the pandemic disorienting. Their routines have been upended, and everyone’s wearing a mask.”

Indeed, WaPo has queried readers on how their dogs are coping during the pandemic. Karin Brulliard discusses how the pandemic has worryingly changed dog-walking routes, inducing further anxiety for our beloved pooches. Also concerning—many dogs, like their stressed-out owners, are putting on the pounds. Thus another essay urges wary readers, “Don’t let your pets get lonely when things go back to normal.” Perhaps all of this will give a boost to the growing field of canine psychology. “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Milan may be in for a windfall.

In truth, every year in recent memory in the United States has been a competition between “year of the dog” and “year of the cat” (cats and dogs are the second and third most popular American pet, behind freshwater fish, which are typically far less expensive to care for). In 2019, Americans spent a record $96 billion on their pets. That represented a 32% increase from 2018, when Americans spent $72.5 billion. When 2020 is said and done, we will likely have witnessed the biggest one-year increase in pet-related expenses (both as an absolute number and as a growth percentage) in U.S. history.

There’s an irony in the fact that during a global epidemic that has normalized quarantines, social distancing, and face-masks—all in order to protect human health—Americans are obsessing over their pets’ wellbeing. Sure, I get it, a dog or cat can be a source of comfort for the lonely, but there’s something imbalanced about the degree to which Americans are concerned about the welfare of their four-legged friends. One wonders how much these pet owners are worrying about the emotional and psychological well-being of their immediate neighbors, many of whom, manifold evidence demonstrates, are suffering from heightened rates of depression, alcohol abuse, and pornography addiction.

Perhaps then the real tragedy regarding the epidemic and our pets is what it says about our attributions of dignity and worth. Americans pamper their pets with luxury spas, decadent treats, and even television programming. We celebrate holidays like “National Dress Up Your Pet Day” (January 14),  “National Pet Obesity Awareness Day” (October 14), and “National Cook For Your Pets Day” (November 1). Some owners sport bumper stickers like one I recently saw: “The more people I meet, the more I like my Great Dane.” 

Increasing numbers of Americans are addicted to harmful substances and engaged in addictive behaviors, but perhaps one of the most overlooked addictions is the one we have for our pets, who sap our time and our wallets while offering an ersatz friendship, one that parrots real human interaction and feeds our shallow, narcissistic egos. Yes, dogs are loyal, endearing, and often cute. They’re also incapable of offering genuine friendship that is exclusive to humans. 

Dogs lavish their owners with affection, but will never rebuke them for their misbehaviour or personal failings. As long as you keep feeding and walking your dog, he doesn’t care if you divorce your wife, leave your kids, and stop paying child support. Your dog doesn’t care if you’re a lazy employee, lousy neighbor, or fair-weather friend. He won’t say anything if you coast through life, negligently underachieve, and waste whatever God-given talents you possess.

I suppose there’s a certain kind of nobility to such unreserved devotion and love on the part of canines. But it also reflects a certain immaturity and emotional impoverishment on the part of owners who crave such affection while dispensing with the more difficult dimensions of human relationships. People require our time, energy, and serious, sacrificial commitment. People often disagree with us, fail to honor their promises, and deeply wound us. To be a true spouse, parent, or friend requires real character, virtue and longsuffering. Love hurts, as the song goes. 

Perhaps then American obsession with pets is yet another manifestation of attempts to fill our lives with meaning and happiness in the wake of declining family formation, faith and religious involvement, and participation in civic organizations. Dogs in one sense are another misplaced savior for those who dispense with God. A University of Pennsylvania study is researching whether canine noses can detect the coronavirus. Of course, if dogs are the solutions to so many of our problems, why can’t they also save us from covid-19? Dog is my co-pilot.

Humans are built to love and be loved. As much as we dote on our dogs and they reciprocate, we can be deceived into thinking we’re experiencing true eudaimonia. Yet it’s a counterfeit caritas. We need to be loved despite our shortcomings, not because the one loving us doesn’t even understand what shortcomings are. We need to learn to love even when the objects of our affection can be selfish, cruel or vindictive, rather than doggedly devoted. That is true agape, the highest, most perfect form of love, that transforms both the subject and the object.

There are a lot of miserable Americans right now, compounded not only by the coronavirus but by a summer of social unrest and an upcoming election that will further expose the fraying cords of whatever’s left of national civic unity. Perhaps what’s even sadder is that rather than seek solace and purpose in loving our neighbor, we’d rather find comfort in four-legged creatures whose excrement we dutifully pick up in the yards of those very same neighbors, whose names we haven’t even bothered to learn. We need these dog days of summer to end.

Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.

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