The Secret Life of Pets? Forget the movie, here’s what it’s really like


What do our beloved animals get up to all day while were out? For too many it entails insufficient exercise or social interaction: they are lonely and bored

The main character in the new film The Secret Life of Pets is a white and tan terrier named Max. As the movie opens, Max gushes about how wonderful his life is with his beloved proprietor, Katie, in their Manhattan apartment. There is only one problem, he tells the audience: She leaves! Indeed, the opening scene is a series of doors slamming in pets faces.

For a split second, the pets seem bereft and lonely, but they promptly shake it off and the fun begins. They open cage doors, climb through windows and gather in apartments and on sidewalks. They have parties, with butt-sniffing and bowls of cookies; they rock out to heavy metal music and, on the working day in question, have wild and unexpected adventures involving deranged alley cats, dog catchers, and the Revolutionary Army of Flushed Pets who are plotting retaliation against the humans who abandoned them.

It is a tale repeated from home to home across the country: the door slams and the pet is left alone. But what really occurs when proprietors leave for the day? I happen to know quite well what my two puppies do for the first 15 minutes. The evidence of their work is usually all over the kitchen floor, and when I forget something and have to run back in after leaving I often catch them in flagrante delicto. First they counter surf, to see if weve been neglectful enough to leave anything within reach. Loaves of bread, bags of cookies, pretzels all are fair game. Next, they check whether there is any cat food to be stolen. After this, Im not sure.

The Secret Life of Pets: what really happens when owners leave for the working day? Photo: Universal

The Secret Life of Pets was written to entertain , not to provide social commentary on the country of pet-keeping in America. But in addition to providing some clean summertime fun, the movie offers an opportunity for serious reflection upon this most bizarre human cultural rite. And some reflection is in order, since the wellbeing of millions of animals is at stake.

The popularity of keeping pets is at an all-time high, and the number of pet animals living in our homes has mushroomed over the past four decades such that pets now outnumber people. The pet industry eagerly fuels this pastime and rakes in billions of dollars each year on the sale of pet animals and their paraphernalia. What does the secret life of pets look like from the animals point of view?

A YouTube video called What my dog does when I leave has several million views, probably because it taps into a curiosity and fear many of us share. A man straps a GoPro to his puppy to capture what a day for him is like on his own. You can almost feel the dogs desperation as his proprietor shuts the door. The dog howls, he operates around the house, looking into every cranny to see if his human might be there. He sniffs “the mens” clothes. He whines. And he awaits. What I find most striking about the video is that the dog doesnt sleep. He is anxiously alert all day, ears pricked for the slightest voice.

GoPro videos notwithstanding, our animals lives when we leave them home are mostly invisible to us. Looking at several objective measures, however, we can surmise that the secret lives of our pets are often boring, frustrating and lonely. At least 40% of dogs in US homes are thought to suffer from nervousnes, and these are just the cases that have been identified by veterinarians. Since at least a one-quarter of all puppies and a third of all cats never insure a veterinarian during their lifetime, pathological high levels of nervousnes are probably much higher than reported.

Emotional suffering often manifests in behavioral problems which are promptly blamed on the pets themselves. But the roots of these problems are almost certainly to be found in the the living standards of our pets. Many are housebound, and expend much of each day alone with nothing to do. By one accounting, the average pet owned spends merely 40 minutes a day truly interacting with his or her animal. Pets have few opportunities to interact with others of their own kind, leaving them in a state of constant social starvation. Rates of morbid obesity are even higher in dogs and cats than they are in humen unmistakable evidence that our animals are not get the physical exercise they urgently need.

We can surmise that the secret lives of our pets are often boring, frustrating and lonely. Photo: Tricia Shay Photography/ Getty Images

We can understand what pet animals need by appearing, for a moment, at animals in zoos. Welfare researchers agree that the welfare of zoo animals can be profoundly compromised when they dont have opportunities to procure their own food, solve problems in their surrounding, or be participating in others of their kind. When animals absence appropriate physical, mental and social stimulation, they can develop what are called stereotypies, repetition behavior patterns such as pacing or weaving which are indicative of severe psychological agony. Just as animals in zoos can suffer from having nothing to do, so can our pets.

For all our rhapsodizing about the human-animal bond, the relationship remains tenuous for many pets. Often the bond becomes strained when owners fail to provide what animals genuinely need. In a sad spin, behaviours such as destroying furniture, compulsive barking, and soiling in the house are often a manifestation of the annoyance and boredom of being left alone too much, with not enough to do. Yet rather than see our own role in driving our animals crazy, we blame it on them on bad wiring or bad attitude and off they go to join the Army of Flushed Pets.

Secret Life reminds us that animals do have complex worlds of their own worlds which interlock with ours. We can do our best to help them have interesting lives, have some freedom from us, and have opportunities to engage in the behaviors for which they have evolved and which they still need to perform. This is especially important in places like New York City which, however exciting and vibrant for humans, is not really designed for animals. It is incumbent upon us as responsible guardians to make sure the secret lives of our pets are fulfilling and happy.

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