We all just want to be loved for who we are, without limitations, without conditions.
If we are lucky, our parents surround us with it from the time we are born. If we are extremely fortunate, we find it in a spouse. And if we are blessed, we exchange it with our children.
Some people search for unconditional love their whole lives. Some people just adopt a pet.
A pet cannot replace any of these relationships, but a furry, feathered or scaly friend can offer love no less infinite.
After months of handwringing about when the right time was to get a pet for our daughter, we surprised her with a trip last December to the Home for the Holidays Pet Adoption Event at the Jacksonville Fairgrounds, where 1,200 dogs and cats from 14 shelters and rescue groups were available.
We were quickly drawn to a pair of two-month-old kittens, a brother and sister who were nearly identical tuxedo domestic shorthairs. The only way you could tell them apart was the black spot on the girl's nose, which inspired Jacksonville Humane Society volunteers to name her Dot. Her brother was Scout. After cuddling them for a few minutes, we were ready to invite them into our home — and our hearts.
For our daughter, the kittens fill many roles: siblings, playmates, children, living dolls. Dot and Scout help wake her in the morning by attacking her feet under the covers, and they settle down to sleep with her at night. They endure goodbye bear hugs before she leaves the house for school. They greet her at the door when she returns.
She fills their bowls, makes sure they get exercise and reads to them. Scout and Dot prefer stories about animals.
We laugh when they sprint through every room in the house, tackling each other in comedic wrestling poses. They stare at the shower doors, occasionally pawing at the dripping water on the opposite side. They curl up beside us while we lounge on the couch and try to help while we type on our laptops.
No matter how many times Scout tries to trip us or how many chairs they destroy or how often they wake us well before we planned with their plaintive, squeaky meows outside our bedroom door, we will love them. We will love them for those things, and so much more. And our love will grow as sure as they will grow from kittens to adults.
That's what so many pet owners echoed on social media when I asked what lessons they've learned from their animals, the best things about living with pets and their advice to someone who is thinking of getting a pet.
Anya Aronson: "They become your sun, moon and stars! Never underestimate their knowledge. They will love you at your worst and best. And you will be very well trained to do their bidding."
Cynthia Enuton: "I've always had a dog and could never imagine my life without one. They give me innocent, unconditional love, fill an ordinary day with laughter, and worship the ground I walk on. But they also depend on me to take good care of them, love them, walk them, and they trust me with their life. Sharing love with a dog is a wonderful thing … a lifelong bond and commitment."
Margaret Carner: "Dogs have taught me how to live in and embrace the moment. Don't worry about the past or the future."
David Mo Sian: "Our dog was our first son; we got him before we had kids. Patience, discipline, reward … responsibility."
Emily Knight-Smith: "Cats have the reputation of being narcissistic: Nothing could be more wrong! My angels talk to me, cuddle, play and basically need all the attention of a puppy! Shelters have twice as many cats than dogs, sometimes more. So don't judge them prematurely. Go adopt a cat or two! I have two and we are a perfect family!"
Melissa Greene Lucero: "Patience! They are a lot of responsibility, but they give you a lot of unconditional love. They also take time and money to care for them properly. Give them the love and respect that you would want, and you will be blessed. Also research the animal, especially if it is a particular breed. Give them a forever home."
James Lessick Jr.: "If you listen, they will tell you what they need. If you don't listen, it is your fault."
That's good advice for any relationship.