How Big Is a Pet’s Vocabulary?

Leaf, Cuddles, and Sunshine

The animals in our home seem to catch on to quite a bit of our verbal communication. We know that they read our body language, behavior, and emotions. They pick up mental and visual images. But lately, we’ve been noticing the human language they recognize.

Seems like we’ve heard that dogs have up to about a 300 word vocabulary. Of course, parrots’ vocabulary can be incredible. So we’ve been experimenting with our cocker spaniel Leaf to find out which words have been imprinted on his young brain.

It’s more difficult to figure out with cats. Do they really not know words such as “Don’t scratch that,” and choose, cat-like, to ignore the plea/command? It’s easier to tell what words our bird knows. He says, “Hello,” and “I love you, sweet baby.”

Below are a few of Leaf’s vocabulary achievements.

Popcorn: mentioned at any volume from any part of the house, brings him running

Carrots: see above for popcorn

Banana: see above for popcorn and carrots

Greenie: see above for popcorn, carrots, and banana

Pampered Pooch: his favorite doggy day care center and no problem getting the leash on him for a sprint to the car

Dog park: brings him and his orange ball to the back door, fired up and ready to go

Up, up, up: entices him to jump onto the bed for a squeeze, kisses, and a tummy rub.

Tummy, tummy, tummy: elicits a rollover that’s faster than money moving from a 401K to an IRA account

Squeaky toy: causes him to root through his collection for favorite toy of the moment

To be fair he still remembers, sort of, his dog school training commands:

Sit (more like, squat for a second),

Stay (more like, pause),

Shake (more like, wave your paw around),

Down (more like, I’ll think about it and decide if I want to)

What human words do your pets respond to?

Is it Possible to Be Too Attached to an Animal Companion?

Because we live in a land with four seasons and an awesomely cold winter, one of our favorite pastimes is to relax in our living room with a roaring fire in the fireplace. Our dog lies on the carpet, gnawing on a chew toy. Kitty, Cuddles, sleeps next to the lamp. Sunshine, our cockatiel, whistles his latest musical creation. And our Lion King cat, Speedy, amuses himself (and us) by sitting in front of the television set to watch his favorite television programs on the Animal Planet channel. We look at each other and feel blessed to live in a home filled with love and contentment.

How many other households have a similar makeup of animal individuals? All filling an important, integral part of a loving family unit. Through the many letters, phone calls, and e-mails we receive from our Angel Animal friends around the world, we suspect the numbers would surprise even the census takers.

Recently we decided to pose an interesting question in our online Angel Animals Newsletter. Although most of us animal lovers view our pets as members of the family, we asked if it is possible to become too attached to an animal companion.  If so, what are the warning signs?

One reader thought that a warning sign of becoming obsessively attached or having a deeper emotional problem was when people cut themselves off from any human companionship. She wrote, “People who have more of an interest in animals should at least try to help out at their local animal shelter, join a breed-rescue group, or try to socialize animals to visit nursing homes/hospitals so that others benefit from their love of animals.”

Some readers thought that there are other example of becoming overly attached to animals or confusing love with neediness. They gave examples of someone who takes on more animals than he or she can handle. For example, a person can’t give enough individual attention to dozens of cats who all need vet visits, food, litter, and a clean environment. Or someone loves horses but doesn’t have the pastureland, food, or time to groom and exercise them.

Readers also thought that excessive grieving could be an indication of a person’s greater feelings of isolation. One reader wrote that she took a year off work when her animal companion died. During that time, though, she channeled her grief into rescuing over forty dogs and finding new homes for them.

Robin wrote the following letter to express her opinion that being too attached to animals is a difficult thing to judge.

“People have many different reasons for turning to their animal companions for love and validation. There may have been a time when I myself might have fallen into this category. As I struggled through years of infertility and pregnancy loss, my pet rabbits became the children that I couldn’t give birth to. I took the loss of my pets very hard, and it affected me deeply in ways I felt not many people understood.

“It is easy to displace our feelings onto our pets, and they are more than willing to receive our attention and devotion. I’m one who can completely understand a deeper connection with an animal companion. I think we all have a need to feel needed and necessary. Sometimes we hit rough areas in our lives that aren’t being filled by the humans in our world and often turn to animal companions to fill our emotional needs. I have found that instead of becoming isolated, my animal companions kept me connected to the world.

“I am not able to make a spiritual distinction between a human companion and an animal companion. In my heart the love, given and received, feels the same. So I suppose my answer to the question would be that I don’t feel it’s possible to become ‘too’ attached to an animal companion.

Along the same lines as Robin above, Jenny says that being attached is what love is all about.  She writes, “I delight in caring for my Tabby cat, Rico. He was pet-of-the-week in our local newspaper and is like my child. I love him and am very attached. When we go out of town on trips, I have his personal pet sitter, whom he loves very much, come and stay in our home with him. Rico is always there for me to hug. He never upsets me; he always calms me.”

Comfort in Our Uncertain Times

Are these tense and trying times contributing to our need to find comfort in the arms (and wings) of our animal companions?

Patti Ann writes, “NO, I do not believe anyone can become too attached to an animal companion. I feel that the world is becoming a colder, meaner, and less trusting place to live our lives everyday. Unfortunately today, most people are not trustworthy, do not have any ethical standards that they live by, and are basically selfish.

“How many people do you know who will still greet you with great enthusiasm, if you woke up in the morning with your hair sticking out all over the place, bags under your eyes (or wrinkle cream still white on your face like a ghost), looking like a beast from under the sea, bad breath, grumpy as all the dickens? Or if that’s too physical, what if you were dirt-poor homeless? Animals would still honor and love you as if you were a king or queen and stay with you till the dying end!”

In the end the answer to questions about attachments to animals seems to be answered by asking further questions. Does your relationship with an animal keep you away from friends, family, work, play, hobbies, or responsibilities such as taking care of kids, jobs, foods, health? Is your life in balance? Do you have a spiritual understanding of the animal as an individual spark of God who must develop his or her own personality and may have needs that are different from yours? Rather than offering solace and comfort, has your relationship with an animal companion become a way of avoiding the problems in your life? How well adjusted and content are the animals in your care? Are you able to give them the time and attention they need?

One thing we’ve concluded is that only you can decide what is excessive. Other people, especially those who have never bonded with an animal, don’t have the right to judge how much you love, how much you grieve, or how much you need. If you’re not hurting yourself or any other animal or person, then it’s really no one’s business that a cat or dog or rabbit or iguana means the world to you. On the other hand, if you’re hearing from EVERYBODY that you’ve gone overboard, you might want to at least consider finding other outlets for your love and devotion-including taking excellent care of yourself and the human relationships in your life.

What do you think? Is it possible to become too attached to an animal?
Allen and Linda Anderson