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Pets and the Americans who love them

Ah, now I get it. I&

m beginning to understand why Americans have such an unseemly love affair with their pets.

I recently gave a small, white kitten away, and I&

m still heartbroken over it. I only had her for three weeks, yet an unexpected void remains. How strange.

The reason I took ownership of Kimba (named after the little white lion of the old Japanese cartoon) is because my Pakistani parents received her as a gift from my sister-in-law but could not make a space for her. A tiny, rambunctious beast that tears up couches and paws excess kitty litter onto a Muslim prayer mat? Get rid of it, they demanded.

It next fell to me to give Kimba a home, and I grew attached. Alas, my constant traveling and late nights made me a lousy candidate for cat ownership.

&

Think about it,&

my friend Tanja told me. &

Someone who wants to adopt a baby usually gets checked out very carefully. You&

re more like that 16-year-old who has parenthood thrust upon you.&

Good point. I turned Kimba over to a more experienced and savvy cat-owning friend. And I&

ve been in mourning since, surprised how deep an imprint that kitten left on me.

Why were my empty-nest parents so closed to the company of an adorable, wonderfully alive pet? A culture gap is the main reason. The statistics for pet-loving in the United States are striking. American pets outnumber humans, some 360 million to 280 million. Cats and dogs make up nearly half that number, with fish, birds, rodents and reptiles rounding things out.

A third of Americans would take their pet to an allergist or pet dentist, and a similar number say money is no concern in maintaining their pet&

s health, according to a recent &

human-animal bonding survey&

conducted by pet supply manufacturer Hartz. The survey found that three-quarters of pet owners view their pet as a family member (considering how many pets are mere fish, that just seems crazy).

Although the British are also famed canine fans, pet worship is hardly universal. &

You don&

t keep pets in the house, feed them with special food, and provide them with training and medical attention if you can barely support your kids,&

says Jenny Xia, a marketing expert in Dallas who has traveled widely across Asia and Europe. True enough: When told how much I spent on Kimba&

s shots, my parents lectured me on how many Third World children I could have fed.

&

Also,&

says Xia, &

a country won&

t care that much about animal rights if its own people&

s human rights cannot even be protected. The relatively young age of America and the resilient, playful character in Americans may be another reason why Americans have elevated a pet&

s status to a human&

s.&

Yet even in America, pet worship has evolved gradually. &

When I was a child, our pet was kept outside in the doghouse,&

says Jill Richardson, an in-house veterinarian from Hartz. &

Cats were kept outside, dogs were kept outside. Now, I don&

t know anyone who has a doghouse.&

The American Pet Product Manufacturers Association noted last year that the fraction of American dogs who slept in their owner&

s beds rose from a third in 1998 to more than two in five by last year. Richardson says the past decade alone has seen a dramatic increase in the pet-people relationship, which she attributes to the increased availability of advanced veterinary medical care as well as increased dependence on pets on the part of independent career women.

&

Women have changed so much in 10 years,&

she says, adding that studies show that women are three times more likely than men to dump a steady date if their pet just isn&

t into them. Oh, I would have once said that this is all too much. But in a cold, high-tech age lacking the stable sense of community that past generations took for granted, pets offer something essential.

&

I can tell you that I&

ve discussed this with other dog owners, and we all agree that dogs are more reliable, trustworthy and friendly than people,&

says Marilyn Heywood Paige of Philadelphia. &

They give us unconditional love.&

I&

ve begun to see that&

s true. But what about people like me, who seem too busy to be good dog or cat owners?

&

I recommend a betta fish,&

says Richardson. &

They&

re low-maintenance.&

Well, it&

s a start.