Best friend, furry friend: the changing dynamics of pets and people
You don’t need to be a social scientist to know when it comes to personal relationships, the landscape is rapidly shifting. Aided or invaded by technology—depending upon your view—our networks are broader, but true intimacy often eludes us. Work relationships have been transformed, with many workers telecommuting, managing global teams, or navigating a generational divide that feels wider than ever. The parent-child relationship has been impacted. A host of cultural and technological changes have made “active” parenting more a battle over “screen time” rather than an enforcement of manners and homework. The common thread among these changing connections is that they’ve become more complicated in the modern age.
When it comes to another significant relationship—with a pet—one imagines a bond that’s immune to the impact of shifting cultural norms. In truth, that seemingly straightforward relationship between pets and people is just as vulnerable to the effects of societal shifts. Perhaps the only real difference is that when it comes to expressing the transformation, only one side is doing the talking.
In truth, that seemingly straightforward relationship between pets and people is just as vulnerable to the effects of societal shifts.
In the company of animals
Humans have lived in the company of domesticated animals for tens of thousands of years. Scientists estimate that dogs were domesticated anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 years ago, cats around 9,500 years ago, and horses around 6,000 years ago. Each came to be domesticated in a different way, craving human connection to greater or lesser extents. Mainly, it was about easier access to food. Though we can’t be sure of the exact nature of human-animal relationships in ancient times, burial grounds show fossils of dogs that were buried alongside humans, and adorned with artifacts and trinkets.
Fast-forward to today. Dogs and cats remain the most popular pets, but the legal-to-own list includes a somewhat surprising array, including hamsters, fish, rats, mice, guinea pigs, snakes, iguanas, ferrets, potbellied pigs, chinchillas, emus, llamas, and pygmy goats. Not only have we expanded the list of animals we’re willing to feed and shelter, we’ve dramatically altered the pet experience itself. How do I know this? When you were growing up, did you ever, ever see a dog in a raincoat? Or a cat being pushed down the street in a stroller? Or a pig running around a celebrity’s house?
Furry family members need stuff, too
If you need hard evidence that we’ve gone a bit nuts about our pets, a quick Google search yields plenty of support data. According to Fortune, the American Pet Products Association (APPA) predicted that in 2016 “U.S pet owners would spend $62.75 billion on their furry (or scaly) friends.” The APPA reported “total U.S. pet industry expenditures have gone up every single year that the association has collected this data, which it began doing in 1994. That first year, the industry was worth $17 billion.”
Items for sale on Etsy include a pet treat advent calendar, an all-wood large bird play gym, a Louis Vuitton upcycled dog collar and leash, and a line of all-natural, “skin and fur enhancing” cat shampoo.
There’s a Canine Circus School in Oakland, CA, whose mission is “to turn every dog into an artist,” and there’s literally such a thing as catnip wine aka “Feline Snack Wine,” available in flavors like Moscato, Pinot Meow, and Catbernet and touted as a cure for drinking alone.
The leader of the pack
While all manner of animals may be coddled pets these days, when it comes to being treated like an actual member of the family, dogs lead the pack. The increase in dog-friendly hotels and restaurants mean our dogs can now accompany us almost anywhere. The marketplace is awash with handcrafted, organic treats, toys designed to stimulate the mind, and some pretty adorable (and wildly expensive) clothing. The existence of such a massive number of pet-related products plants the idea of necessity and tricks us into essentially buying our dog’s love. Not unlike parents who make up for long hours at work by buying their (human) children the latest tech gadgets, pet parents assuage their guilt with top-of-the-line pet beds. And, what else do dog owners fret over these days? You guessed it, how smart their dog is.
The existence of such a massive number of pet-related products plants the idea of necessity and tricks us into essentially buying our dog’s love.
According to a recent article in The New York Times, “Suddenly how smart your dog is seems to matter—an aspiration that has also not gone unnoticed by the commercial pet industry. Walk into any pet supply chain, such as the aptly named PetSmart, and take in the toys, gadgets and foods advertised as optimizing a dog’s intelligence.” As a result, canine cognition research is having a moment. Universities at home and abroad are conducting research, abetted by the many dog owners interested in learning their pooch’s IQ. “At Yale, the three-year-old canine cognition center has been barraged by humans eager to have their dogs’ intelligence evaluated, volunteering them for research exercises and puzzles. Some owners drive for hours.”
Pets are people, too
How did we get here? Simply put, via a cultural phenomenon called the “Humanization of Pets.” While it refers to all pets, cats and dogs are at the heart of the movement. According to a lengthy 2015 market research report on Euromonitor.com, the humanization of pets is a trend that began with more and more people living in urban centers and downsizing to smaller pets which are easier to humanize. Other factors contributing to the trend include an increase in single-person households and households without children which have given rise to the “pets as child substitutes” trend. Add to this a greater amount of disposable income—spending power—and the insatiable drive of marketers to flood the market with niche products. Suddenly you’ve got a whole new definition of what it means to be a pet.
The report cites a sunny outlook with respect to the continued humanization of pets and its impact on related businesses and products, noting, “Pet humanisation is set to continue to drive sales of pet products and services. This will be led by rising populations of small animals, economic growth in developing markets and recovery in developed markets, and the ongoing tightness of the animal/human bond.” Good news for pet product companies, for sure, but what about the animals we’re doing all of this for?
The pet parent trap
Not surprisingly, some experts are sounding the alarm vis à vis pet humanization. In her best-selling book, Inside of a Dog, What Dogs See, Smell and Know, cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz argues against, for example, dressing your dog in a raincoat. Notes Horowitz, “Many dog owners who dress their dogs in coats have the best intentions: they have noticed, perhaps, that their dog resists going outside when it rains. It seems reasonable to extrapolate from that observation to the conclusion that he dislikes the rain.”
Your dog, however, like its ancestors the wolf and the wild canine, already has a coat. And, according to Horowitz, “One coat is enough: when it rains, wolves may seek shelter, but they do not cover themselves with natural materials. That does not argue for the need for or interest in raincoats. And besides being a jacket, the raincoat is also one distinctive thing: a close, even pressing, covering of the back, chest, and sometimes the head. There are occasions when wolves get pressed upon the back or head: it is when they are being dominated by another wolf, or scolded by an older wolf or relative.” In other words, your dog may submit to walking in the rain in a seersucker-lined trench, but it’s not because he appreciates the garment, it’s because you dominated him by putting him in it.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that in many other interactions with pets, we humans are falling into the same trap. We’re cold, therefore Mittens should don a microfleece vest. We snack in front of late night TV, so perhaps Dexter should get another treat, too. “The way around this kind of misstep,” counsels Horowitz, “is to replace our anthropomorphizing instinct with a behavior-reading instinct.”
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that in many other interactions with pets, we humans are falling into the same trap. We’re cold, therefore Mittens should don a microfleece vest.
When we fail to understand our pets’ natural instincts and inclinations, we’re more likely to perceive behavior problems. Shelters are filled with abandoned pets who didn’t behave as their humans expected. We’ve gone so far down the road away from wild animal and toward pet-child, is it any wonder our expectations are out of whack? It’s not easy to find traces of the wild canine under all that microfleece.
It’s not them, it’s us
In an article in the Chicago Tribune, renowned “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan explains why Americans have trouble with their dogs. “In almost every case, it is you, not your dog, that's the problem.”
Millan finds that most dog-owners are confusing love and responsibility. “The formula is: Exercise, discipline, affection. Or: Body, mind, heart. But my clients do: Affection, affection, affection. And by doing that, they're focusing on their needs only, and unconsciously they enter into a very selfish fulfillment in that relationship and only one side gets the benefit.” Millan goes on to say, “So man's best friend becomes a very unstable friend—and this unstable friend, a lot of the time, is brought into a shelter because he doesn't behave the way you thought he should. But you don't realize that you made him that way.”
Millan’s website, Cesar’s Way, is filled with advice for dog owners, much of which can be boiled down to, “A happier life with your dog becomes easy once you see your dog as a dog and honor his canine perspective." Of course, if all the crazy we pet parents are inflicting is traumatizing them, the good news is these pets can’t talk. They’re unlikely to wind up on a therapist’s couch five years from now complaining about the ridiculous bumble bee costume they’re forced to wear every Halloween. But this shouldn’t give us free reign to approach the animals in our care as if they’re furry versions of human beings. In a relationship where we’re the dominant party, maybe it’s time to uncomplicate things. Forego the birthday parties, unsubscribe from the Barkbox, and start considering where our pets are coming from. Chances are it sounds a lot like, “Give me exercise, give me discipline, give me love. Woof.”
Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Find her on Twitter: @lmshear.