What if our pets lived as long as us?

During Christmas break when I was in seventh grade, I was watching quarterback Joe Montana*—my favorite athlete of all time and to this day a hero of mine—play in what I believe was his final game with my favorite team of all time, the San Francisco 49ers. Steve Young**, a budding superstar, had taken over as the team’s starting quarterback while the aging Montana*** was out with an injury, so Montana was in the game simply because the 49ers were several touchdowns ahead of their opponent. Joe Cool looked as good as ever, and I thought he should still be the starter. The cleanup time Montana played that night was more or less an audition for any other team willing to trade for him, and the Kansas City Chiefs**** picked up Montana after the end of the season.

It was during the game that I noticed our dog, Dutchess, a keeshond, had been outside for a long time. She, like Montana, was aging, but Montana was in his 30s and hopefully had decades of life ahead of him—he was aging in terms of an athlete. Dutchess was 14, had developed cataracts and recently bitten my dad (through the thumbnail!) as he tried to brush her. Me, mom and dad knew Dutchess was not going to live much longer.

It was at that moment, during Montana’s final triumph in a 49ers jersey, that I realized Dutchess was still outside because she was likely dead.

I ran outside as fast as my 12-year-old legs could carry me—I was pretty fast and would soon join the track team at school, after all—and searched the yard for the family pet.

I found her at the bottom of the hill in our back yard, still alive but obviously impaired. I figured she had suffered a stroke.

I scooped her 30 pounds into my arms and ran up the hill screaming for mom and dad.

We took her to an emergency pet hospital, and the prognosis wasn’t good. She had indeed suffered a stroke, and despite my naive optimism, she was dead within a few days. Dad made the decision to have her put down, and it was the first time I experienced death.

It was at that moment that I realized Dutchess
was still outside because she was likely dead.

As pet owners we inevitably have to deal with the fact that we will outlive our pets. Just yesterday my wife said she didn’t know what she would do without Katniss, who, at 1 1/2 and in outrageously good health, likely has many years of hellraising ahead of her. Unfortunately, by the time I’m in my 40s, our house will no longer be filled with Katniss’ daily whining, insistence on snuggling or clumps of hair she has shed. And that sucks.

But what if dogs lived as long as we did? What if their lifespan was 75 years or more? Some animals, such as a 183-year-old giant tortoise named Jonathan, can even far outlive us humans. If our dogs lived longer, we could share our entire lives with them and grow old together. We could watch them have multiple litters of puppies, and those puppies could live alongside our own children. Perhaps dogs would be treated more humanely and animal shelters would cease to exist, or at least be less commonplace, if dogs were seen more as our equals because of their similar lifespan and lifelong companionship.

In order for such a long lifespan to exist for dogs there might have to be several evolutionary changes—perhaps dogs would have larger brains, fewer pups per litter and not be so naturally dependent on humans, for example. If these or other factors were the case, as they almost certainly would have to be, would our dogs really be the same loyal pets they are now? Might they even be a competitive species? Would we live in a world in which dogs could even talk, like Brian from “Family Guy?” And what if we bought a dog in our middle-age years? Who would take care of the dog once we died? Perhaps the animal shelters would be full after all? Should our dogs live as long as us, the very notion of them being our pets might not even exist. That might be the scariest part of it all.

I really do not want to live in a world without my little buddy, but I know Katniss won’t live forever. It’s up to me to enjoy her while she’s here so I have no regrets when she’s gone. The same could be said about us humans—we ought to appreciate one another while we’re able.

And Joe—or is it Mr. Montana?—if you’re reading this (and why wouldn’t you be?), you’re still the man and the greatest of all time.  Thanks for inspiring me to play sports, particularly football throughout high school—including a season-long stint as a quarterback. I was one lucky dog to be able to witness your career.

*When I played football in high school, I wore the jersey number of 3 in Montana’s honor, as it was the number he wore when he played at Notre Dame. Also, a friend of mine wore the same number the year before, and I wanted to have the privilege of wearing it myself. Sixteen, Montana’s number with the 49ers, and 19, his number with the Chiefs, weren’t available, as my high school didn’t have those jersey numbers for whatever reason. Nineteen is my lucky number in part because Montana wore it and also because another great QB, Johnny Unitas, wore it, too.

I’m such a nerd. I don’t blame you if you stop reading my blog after this.

**For many years I despised Young, who is also a lawyer and fellow lefty, for taking Montana’s starting job. I grew to respect, and even like, him, however, as I got older. I happened to see Young’s last game, against the Arizona Cardinals, in 1998 or 1999. I was watching the game on TV with my dad, and Young was hit hard—one of those rare hits that when they happen, you know a guy’s career may have ended in that instant. Young suffered a concussion, and he never played again. I saw him pacing back and forth on the sidelines later in the season when I attended a Cincinnati Bengals/49ers game and felt awful for the guy.

***Two cool personal Joe Montana stories: When I was about 16 or so and became an Eagle Scout, my dad somehow got Montana to send me an autographed photo as a reward for my hard work. It was probably one of the coolest things that ever happened to me. Second, a co-worker of mine was in a California courtroom as a young law student/lawyer (I can’t remember which) as Montana was going through a divorce and having his assets divided. She said he was dressed in sweats and sandals, possibly in an attempt to look as poor as possible, or because he had just come from practice.

****I became a Chiefs fan while Montana was there and even nurtured a healthy disdain for my beloved 49ers for ditching him. Once Montana, and then Young, retired, I eventually went back to being a 49ers fan. I still love the Chiefs, however, and admire their nutty fans, who are officially the loudest in the world.

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