Research indicates that owning a pet greatly reduces stress and lowers the risk of heart attack.
It's true. Each night I stagger home from work to find Katydid, the dog, lying with all four paws in the air, snoring away on her L. L. Bean dog bed and basking in the warmth of the crackling wood stove.
Stress? Katydid hasn't a care in the world, save when her paws twitch in her sleep in pursuit of gossamer rabbits. Life at our house is just what the doctor ordered for her and the rest of an animal menagerie that totals two dogs and two cats.
Pets have it made. It's their owners whose nerves are shot.
The same black Lab who now is snoozing blissfully on her back earlier swiped a 1-pound block of frozen ground beef from the kitchen counter and woofed it down, wrapper and all.
Timmy, the cat who is curled up in a fetal tuck on our daughter's bed, likes to use Beth's math homework as a scratching post. The other cat, Weet Weet, tries to climb the Christmas tree each year. The other dog, Brindle, chewed the turn signal off our brand-new car.
Sometimes I'd like to swap them all for a Chia Pet. I usually feel this way after a trip to the supermarket, where one-fourth of the grocery budget goes for pet supplies. That's because the cats, who are old and finicky, especially like baby food, which is twice as expensive as cat food, which is not cheap at all.
At home I feel like Dr. Dolittle because I do little except clean up after the ani mals. Somebody barfs daily, usually on a household appliance that is impossible to clean, like the telephone.
The cats were my wife's idea; the dogs were mine. I've had dogs since age 6 when I saw "Lady and the Tramp." We found our own Lady at the city pound. When she passed on at 18, I dug her grave in the back yard. (We bury all our pets and hold a graveside service for them. I worry that someday, one of the animals will succumb in the dead of winter, making interment impossible.)
Since Lady, seven dogs have tramped through our door, including Margaret, a swaybacked hound who ate part of the cellar steps and a chunk of my record collection, and Patty, a boisterous animal who scaled great heights in search of chow. Once Patty attacked a strawberry birthday cake fresh from Mom's oven.
My wife learned the part dogs played in my life early in our courtship. The first time Meg came to dinner, on Thanksgiving, she found Patty foraging on the dining room table.
But Meg has adapted nicely over 16 years. Eventually, she went to work for a veterinarian. She has become so adept at cleaning pet stains from carpets that neighbors routinely ask her advice in removing their own.
Last summer, Meg found a stray kitten in the road and took it to the local animal shelter. Then she changed her mind and decided to find a home for the kitten herself. Retrieving the same cat from the shelter cost her $25, but it was worth it.
Meg even suggested we have a family portrait taken with our pets, so into the studio we tramped. The photographer earned his paycheck that day. In the picture, everyone is facing the camera, probably because of the bone that he waggled above it.
The big dog in that photo is Katy, a black Lab that once belonged to a neighbor who kept her chained all day. Her incessant howling led us to offer to take Katy for a walk and a ride. Katy proceeded to jump out the car window, breaking her leg. We paid the bills ($400) and cared for Katy during her six-week convalescence, after which her owner refused her back. Though we owned two dogs and two cats at the time, we chose to keep her. We had too much invested in her, both love and money.
Katy died of cancer at 7. One summer afternoon, near the end, the two of us sat together in the shade of our pear tree. I ate a pear and tossed the core to Katy, who caught it in midair and finished it. We polished off several pears this way. Then I wiped my mouth on my sleeve and lay there, looking up at the sky with my head on her back. We stayed there for 15 minutes.
I promised her we'd do that again someday. And we will.
After Katy came Katydid, so named because she does everything that Katy did, like digging foxholes, eating ants and -- chewing the garden hose into large macaroni-shaped pieces. For a while I kept a list of Katydid's snacks: her dog leash, some dandelions, one hornet and a road map. Then she ate the list. One night she chewed up my wallet and part of a $20 bill (about $7 worth), which the bank grudgingly replaced.
Katydid also stalks birds with more cunning than the cats -- an equitable trade, since one of the cats has seized control of the doghouse and won't let either of the dogs inside. The cat's name is Timmy, an orange-and-white feline who showed up at the back door one day at 5 a.m.
Strays seek us out. We live on a back road where people dump unwanted animals who always end up on our doorstep. Sometimes I think there's a big neon sign on the roof, visible only to woebegone animals, that says, "Suckers Live Here."