Pets, notably dogs and cats, are as essential to American life as TV -- and are a far better influence. The intellectual cat, I am pleased to note, has surpassed the low- brow dog as the nation's pet of choice, but with 54 million cat owners and 51 million dog owners, one thing is clear: Americans love companion animals.
Studies show pets increase the life span of the elderly, lower blood pressure in adults and teach children responsibility. Conversely, abuse of animals frequently indicates sociopathology that can be precursor to other crimes, from domestic violence to serial murder.
The national obsession with pets has brought forth a literary litter. Americans need to understand why Fluffy prefers the Persian rug to the litter box and Spot likes Italian shoes more than rawhide chews. Some pet books give clues; others are meant merely to entertain or treat the eye.
"If Only You Knew How Much I Smell You" (Little, Brown, 104 pages, $19.95) wins the blue ribbon for best title. Full of terrific photographs by Valerie Shaff of smart dogs, silly dogs, sad dogs and sweet dogs, this is a perfect book for the canine connoisseur.
Roy Blount Jr., one of America's canniest writers, expounds his ode to dogs in the introductory text, then adds bits of doggerel to accompany Shaff's winsome portraits. Personal favorites include a Jack Russell terrier in the grass with the couplet: Don't call me your "little furball."/I'm on the trail of something terrible.
Or the tiny puppy, looking forlorn: I was having such fun and then/I got tired./Will I ever have fun again?
"Why Dogs Do That," text by Tom Davis and illustrations by Peter Ring (Willow Creek Press, 96 pages, $13.95), offers classic illustrations combined with a simple and concise text that provides answers to some mysterious questions, like why dogs turn around three times before lying down or why dogs eat, well, anything. (The answers are genetic--scratch a dog and you find a wolf.)
"Fun Facts About Dogs," written and illustrated by Richard Torregrossa (Health Communications Inc., 120 pages, $7.95), makes a nice companion to "Why Dogs." Filled with the kind of tidbits that turn up on "Jeopardy," "Fun Facts" is conveniently pocket-sized for cramming before those AKC meetings.
Inexpensive isn't always a bargain, however. "Everything I Know About the Rat Race, I Learned from My Cat," by Allia Zobel (Andrews McMeel, 80 pages, $6.95), is, despite cartoons by the splendid Nicole Hollander, merely an insipid rip-off of a truly magnificent book, cartoonist Suzy Becker's "All I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat" (Workman, 96 pages, $5.95).
The link between the axioms of "Rat Race" and actual cat life -- unlike Becker's book and despite the efforts of Hollander -- is weak at best. (None of our kitties has ever even thought "Always make your manager look good," or "Spell-check everything" -- very un-catlike thoughts indeed. Cats have no desire to make anyone but themselves look good and are never wrong and thus don't require spell-check.)
The superlative nature of cats gets exquisite exposition in "Cat Shots" (National Geographic, 110 pages, $25). Magnificent color photographs of cats from around the world show the range of cat behavior and feline life -- sweet, lush, pitiful, but always captivating. A gorgeous volume, with text by Michele Slung.
A veterinarian for more than 40 years, on farms and now on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and the former chief surgeon for the New York ASPCA, Howard Pawdee knows pets. "The Cat Who Couldn't See in the Dark" (Houghton-Mifflin, 240 pages, $11), co-written with veteran author Valerie Moolman, combines compelling anecdotes with useful advice.
The information in "The Cat Who" both fascinates and educates. Pawdee uses individual clients to explain various illnesses and syndromes in cats, as well as behaviors. There are cats who nearly die from curiosity; ingesting marijuana, eating fishing line (replete with hook), chasing birds off high-rise balconies, drinking unattended cocktails. Then there are the well-meaning but surprisingly ignorant owners, like the couple whose strict vegetarianism gets imposed on their cat -- nearly killing him (he's the cat of the title; lack of certain cat-essential nutrients found only in meat can cause blindness. )
A highly readable book, if a little preachy in places (Pawdee never misses an opportunity to point out the importance of good dental hygiene for cats), but filled with vital information for cat owners, as well as a host of intriguing tales, "The Cat Who" belongs in every cat lover's library.
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson has a certain notoriety in the world of letters. A Sanskrit scholar and student of Freud, he has written numerous books, including the controversial "The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory." In "Dogs Never Lie About Love" (Crown, 304 pages, $14), Masson explicates his theories of dogs and emotion, which are, in a word, fascinating. Dogs, Masson posits, are more human than we think.
Ever the scholar, Masson delves deep into the history of dogs and even deeper into the psychology of their behavior -- via scientific modalities and his own research. Some criticize everything Masson has written since the Freud debacle, and no doubt there are those who will find his concepts here suspect, claiming rampant anthropomorphism.
This is no off-the-cuff thesis, however; it's quite convincing. For anyone who loves dogs, this book is essential reading. For those left cold by dogs, Masson's exploration into the relationship between humans and canines will at the very least be cause for re-evaluation. An intriguing and complex book by a complicated writer, "Dogs Never" will leave one musing for days.
If one is, like Masson, serious about the role of animals in human history, then Hilda Kean's treatise on "Animal Rights" (Reaktion Books, 272 pages, $26) delineates links between our concern (or lack thereof) for animals and political change. Kean examines social issues as diverse as suffrage, the anti-vivisection movement and war, as well as present day animal rights activism, and makes a sometimes weak but more often compelling argument for how animal rights must be integrated into modern political and social discourse as well as legislation.
Often dismissed as a fringe concern, animal rights, as explicated by Kean, is inextricably linked to our own future in society. How we treat animals, she argues persuasively, may determine our own survival on the planet.
Victoria A. Brownworth shares her home with four feline, one canine and one human companion. She has made a home for as many as 11 cats and three dogs. Otherwise, she is the author of seven books and editor of seven. Her anthology of short fiction, "Night Shade," by Seal Press will be published in April.
Pub Date: 01/31/99