Attention pets: Earn your keep


Published Dec 1, 2012 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

I'm a big believer in animals earning their keep.

This is their historic relationship with humans, after all. Dogs protected our prehistoric settlements, alerted us to dangers and helped us hunt, archeologists suggest. Cats guarded our granaries against being overrun by rodents. Not to mention the work done by horses, oxen, llamas and other beasts of burden.

Historically, if they weren't food, animals in a human household had to justify their existence by doing some other kind of work.

I don't hunt or drive dogsleds or own sheep, so my dogs have never really had a “job” in the working dog sense. But a dog living under our roof is still expected to earn its keep. I guess the expectations have just changed.

I still want my dog to function as some sort of (mild) alarm when someone comes to the house. But I also expect to be able to snuggle her whenever the urge strikes me. She also must allow my kids to put funny hats on her and force her to hang out in the blanket fort they built in the living room. And of course, she's expected to clean up the kitchen floor after food has inevitably been dropped upon it.

(Honestly, I don't know how families without dogs raise small children. From about 6 months old to 6 years old, kids are always dropping food on the floor — blobs of infant cereal, Cheerios from the high chair, chunks of scrambled egg, sandwich innards and, occasionally, whole plates of spaghetti. Not to mention crumbs, lots and lots of crumbs. The two dogs we've had since children came into our home have been diligent about cleaning up after them, saving me countless hours on my hands and knees under the kitchen table. And every dog I have ever owned has been “toe trained” — they stay mostly out of the kitchen until I tap tap tap with my toe to indicate the clumsy cook has made a mess that needs their attention.)

Anyway, dogs in my home earn their keep through alertness, affection, tolerance and floor maintenance.

But what about cats?

I have much lower standards for cats. They're the emo loafers of pets. They demand affection when they want it, lash out against the hand that pets them when they don't, and generally treat humans as serfs who, by virtue of having opposable thumbs, are singularly capable of filling their food bowls.

But cats are supposed to be really good at one thing: catching small creatures.

That's why, when I heard some suspicious scratching in the garage last week and then glimpsed a mouse tail scurrying under the workbench, I felt no qualms about marching straight into the house and demanding the cat do something about the mouse situation in the garage. He responded with a big yawn and stretch, then settled his chin back on his paws to resume his nap.

So I picked him up, dropped him in the garage and shut the door. Let's see if a couple hours locked in a room with a tasty rodent wouldn't tempt him to do what comes naturally to most cats.

Unfortunately, what came naturally to this cat was more napping. He immediately curled up on a kid's snowsuit that had fallen out of the winter clothes box, tucked his tail around his head and fell asleep.

For five hours.

So much for the hunting instinct.

A friend suggested I try a nocturnal approach, but it seems too cold to make my cat spend the night in the garage.

Maybe I'll just have to accept that sometimes, pets don't pay their way.

Sometimes, the exuberant affection of a dog is enough, without all the other benefits.

And sometimes, hearing a cat purr as it nuzzles against you and curls up in your lap makes it worthwhile.

Guess I'll have to buy some mousetraps.