What If All Pets Had Really Long Lifespans?

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When I was a kid, we kept an African grey parrot named Paco, who was a wonderful and adored family member. Among his verbal exploits, he would cry like a baby, bark like our dogs and meow — exactly — like several neighborhood cats (much to our canines’ consternation).

One horrible day, our house was burglarized. Paco was taken, along with a few inconsequential items of negligible personal value relative to our beloved pet.

Quite apart from being devastated by our loss, we were horrified to ponder how 10-year-old Paco would spend the balance of his life. After all, African greys often live 35 to 40 years. What would become of him? Would he spend the remainder of his life in a cage? How would he fare?

Pets With Extended Lifespans Have Special Needs

Missing Paco has frequently found me contemplating the possibility of getting a new bird. Since Paco, I’ve fostered macaws, cockatoos and parrots, but I’ve never committed to a long-lived animal. I’ve always worried that, given their longevity, I’d be unable to meet my obligations at some point.

I think it makes sense. After all, if you get a parrot who might reasonably outlive you by a significant number of years, would it be fair to take him on in the first place?

Honestly, it’s one of the reasons why I don’t believe that keeping long-lived creatures, like primates and large parrots, is a good idea for most people. Not only do these animals require more attention and enrichment, because of their higher intelligence compared to such traditional pets as cats and dogs, but their longevity also makes for lots of practical problems you might not immediately consider.

My recent post on keeping exotic pets is what got me pondering this topic. While writing about the problems associated with the longevity of some birds and most monkeys, I couldn’t help but contemplate how often dog and cat owners decry the limited lifespan of their pets. Yet I can’t avoid thinking how different our lives would be if they did live longer.

Consider the realities:

Our transient culture. Our society is more mobile than ever before. Americans no longer spend the bulk of their lives moored to one spot. Given the vagaries of pet acceptance from one community or housing option to another, this impacts how we handle our pets on a very practical level.

Easier travel opportunities. When you consider that many of us enter periods of frequent travel because of career opportunities, higher economic status or retirement, the presence of pets can become a serious issue. With a long-lived animal, humans no longer have the ability to say, “When Fluffy passes, I’ll finally take that vacation.”

Attachment issues. Sorry to inject this sad dose of reality, but it’s been my observation that owners whose animals live longer often suffer disproportionately more than those whose pets live normal lifespans. It makes sense that it would be harder to let go of someone you’ve lived with for 22 years versus the more standard 12, don’t you think?

Estate planning. Yes, your pets are technically part of your estate. Yet precious few of us make appropriate plans for transferring ownership of our pets when we pass. That would have to change if pets lived much longer. I’ve had the opportunity to recognize that horse, parrot and primate owners tend to plan more carefully for their animals’ future than those of us who “enjoy” pets with fewer years to spare.

I know this is kind of a depressing topic, but my goal is not to drive you to despondency. My intention is quite the opposite.

Cats and dogs may not live as long as some other species, but they’re living longer now that modern veterinary medicine is fulfilling its promise to add comfortable years to their lives. As pet lifespans increase, so does your responsibility to live up to your expanded obligations on their behalf.


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