Humans and animals share a bond that can’t be described with mere words. It transcends the limits of our vocabulary, so it comes as no surprise when we struggle to define our relationship with our pets. Are we an “Owner”? “Caretaker”? “Guardian”? “Pet Parent”?
Surprisingly, this innocent question has stirred up quite a little tempest in a teacup. In 2013, an article by Torie Bosch entitled “I Am Not a Pet Parent” hit the internet, and battle lines were drawn on both sides over use of the term.
Before we go any further, full disclosure: Yes, I consider myself a pet parent. (I’m assuming you may have already gathered that if you’re reading this post on my blog.) And no, I don’t dress up my cats in cheerleader outfits during football season. I never conducted a wedding for my dog, or bought a spot on the Jumbotron during the NBA playoffs to wish him a happy birthday (not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
I do, however, wholeheartedly consider my pets to be family, and am proud to call myself a pet parent. What I don’t understand is all the backlash.
Seriously, what’s the big deal?
How Did We Get Here?
It wasn’t all that long ago that the companion animals we now cherish so much were viewed very differently. Even my own grandmother admitted that yes, they had pets, but they never dreamed of allowing them inside the house because “animals are so dirty.” (Obviously she’d never seen the inside of a women’s restroom midway through a Def Leppard concert at the Agora.)
Thankfully, our relationship with animals has evolved quite a bit over the last century. Gone are the days when Petey, the Little Rascals dog, freely roamed the streets fending for himself and spending most of his time staying one step ahead of the dog catcher. Most people no longer leave their dogs outside chained to a doghouse year round in all types of weather, nor do they perform at-home “euthanasia” by taking them out behind the barn with a hunting rifle.
Now fast forward to the present. According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent $55.7 billion on their pets in 2013. That number was projected to be about $60 billion in 2014 – almost double what we spent in 2001. Obviously, attitudes have shifted. In our current enlightened state, we seem to be doing everything we can to take great care of our pets.
And that’s a good thing…right?
The “Pet Parent” Backlash
Unfortunately, it seems like whenever there’s a groundswell, there’s inevitably a backlash. In the aforementioned article by Torie Bosch, the author states:
I want to scream: Stop trying to make ‘pet parent’ happen. But it’s already happening. A survey found that 76 percent of dog owners preferred to be called ‘dog parents’ or ‘pet parents’. Much as I hate to put down my fellow animal lovers, these people have been indoctrinated.
The American Pet Products Association estimates that total U.S. spending on pets will top $55 billion this year. To maintain that kind of growth requires the sale of more (and more expensive) pet foods, cat trees, and manicures. To sell additional outdoor habitats for indoor cats apparently requires owners to feel as emotionally and financially invested in their furry cuddlebugs as real parents are in their children.
But that isn’t parenting. Parenting prepares a human being to live and thrive in the real world without the constant guidance of a mother or father. Ideally, the person should, unlike my cats, be able to answer nature’s calls without anyone else having to clean it up. Yeah, some cats can use the toilet, but mine will never be that self-sufficient. They will be indolent and indulged, dependent on my husband and me, for the rest of their days. It is a two-way relationship: They give me unconditional affection, comfort, and warmth when I just can’t deal with humans any longer. But that isn’t a parent-child relationship. It’s a pet-pet owner relationship.
I may do the bidding of Callie and Goose. But I still own them.
The response from pet parents to this article was resounding.
Rebuttals included “pets are not toaster ovens”; “all animals are legally distinct enough from insentient goods in a variety of ways that allow their rights to transcend that of mere property”; and “I didn’t birth or father my son; I adopted him. Am I not his parent?”
So What’s So Threatening About “Pet Parent”?
When you ask anti-pet-parent people exactly what it is that bothers them about the term, one of the biggest complaints seems to be resentment towards what they perceive as the pet marketing industry using the term to attempt to manipulate and guilt them into buying more stuff – the implication being that if they don’t fully get on board the pet parent train, they are terrible people.
Others struggle with the term because they are uncomfortable about what would happen if society legally did away with the designation of “pet owner”. They’re afraid it would open up the possibility of numerous sweeping changes involving legal guardianship and liability, the possibility of rising veterinary costs, and how it could impact livestock and the food industry. Some animal trainers and behavior experts might be concerned that turning dogs and cats into surrogate “children” could lead to the development of inappropriate behavior.
I’ve also noticed that the term “pet parent” seems to subtly threaten some parents of human children, who might feel that it demeans their status as parents and disparages their relationships with their kids.
Personally, regarding big, bad Madison Avenue forcing a thinly veiled marketing ploy meant to guilt us into overspending, sure, it’s possible. But I also think it’s possible that they’re simply responding to an organic movement of people becoming more accepting of the fact that pets are, indeed, part of the family, and acknowledging our desire to treat them as such.
As for the parents of human children who are offended? I offer up the idea that the giving and receiving of love in this life is not a competition. And stepping back and looking at the big picture, I think we may have more in common than we realize.
Why I Fly My Pet Parent Flag Proudly
When it comes to taking care of our pets, we are responsible for:
- Providing food and shelter
- Creating a safe and loving environment
- Teaching appropriate behavior to allow our pets to “play well with others”
- Providing proper medical care
- Supplying toys and activities for enrichment
- Providing training and education
- Building and nurturing a bond that we hope will last a lifetime
Similarities to human children? Check, check and check.
So are we anthropomorphizing somewhat? Perhaps. But it’s been scientifically proven that animals can experience emotion, dream like humans, and exhibit altruism (as evidenced by this video of a cat defending a little boy who was being viciously attacked by a dog).
Why then is it so hard to consider that we can “parent” another species? Animals have no problem doing this (just search YouTube for videos on mother cats nursing squirrels, dogs raising baby deer, and the crow who continuously brought food to an abandoned starving kitten and saved her life).
Our pets may never be elevated to the status of human children in society, and I’m totally okay with that. But when my cat is purring and happy, climbing up onto my shoulder to lick my face and gazing straight into my eyes with pure, unadulterated love? In that moment, I’m his Mom.
Does it really matter what words we use to describe it?
How do you feel about the term “pet parent”? How do you describe yourself in terms of your relationship with your pets?