Animals and Us   /   Spring 2019   /    Animals and Us

Our Pets, Ourselves

A turn to animals for emotional support is hardly surprising, even if it is not ideal.

Christine Rosen

Photography by Javier Brosch/Alamy Stock Photo.

In October 2018, a woman on a Frontier Airlines flight from Orlando to Cleveland was forcibly removed from the plane before takeoff. The reason? Airline personnel noticed that the “emotional support animal” she had brought on board in a pet carrier was in fact a squirrel—a pet that was not allowed aboard under the airline’s policies but one she refused to relinquish. Defiant as she was escorted off the plane by security officers, the woman, whose behavior caused a two-hour delay for the other passengers, later told USA Today that she was planning to sue the airline and portrayed herself as a hero for telling the flight attendants, “You’re not taking my squirrel. Sorry, you’re not. I refuse. You will not take my baby from me.”11xSara M. Moniuszko, “Woman Kicked Off Flight over Emotional Support Squirrel Speaks Out: ‘You Will Not Take My Baby from Me,’” USA Today, October 11, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/flights/2018/10/11/frontier-airlines-passenger-who-brought-emotional-support-squirrel-flight-speaks-out/1603615002/.

As the ballad of the therapy squirrel suggests, something significant has changed in our relationship with our pets—and not all of it for the good. Pets have become problematic, both in the new rights and privileges and emotional lives pet owners claim for them and in the deeper tensions those claims reveal about contemporary culture.  

The impulse to treat our pets as beloved children and companions isn’t new. “Romans buried their dogs in human cemeteries and talked about them like children,” David Grimm, author of Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, told Wired magazine.22xBrandon Keim, “Dogs and Cats Are Blurring the Lines between Pets and People,” Wired, April 8, 2014, https://www.wired.com/2014/04/citizen-canine-cats-dogs-personhood/. But the scale and scope of our pet obsessions have vastly increased since Roman times. Rather than demonstrate an increased capacity for empathy for other species, our relationships with our pets often inadvertently reveal new forms of human anxiety and weakness. Have we reached a more enlightened stage in the evolution of our relationships with our animal companions, as some animal lovers suggest, or, like Lennie in Of Mice and Men, who carried a doomed mouse around in his pocket, are we at risk of loving them to death?

 

Pets and Their People

 

Squirrels weren’t always unwelcome animal companions. In fact, they were popular pets in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America. Wealthy Americans often kept tamed squirrels on gold leashes, as John Singleton Copley’s 1765 painting, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel, depicts, and President Warren G. Harding allowed his pet squirrel, Pete, to roam the White House.

As historian Katherine C. Grier notes in Pets in America: A History, even the word pet has had different meanings through the ages. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that in the early 1500s it described “an indulged or spoiled child,” but by the mid-sixteenth century it was being applied to animals kept as companions. Nevertheless, until the mid-nineteenth century, as Grier writes, the standards for what defined a pet were fairly straightforward, and rarely sentimental: “(1) the animal was allowed in the house, (2) it was given an individual name, (3) it was never eaten.”33xKatherine C. Grier, Pets in America: A History (Raleigh, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 7.

Today, some critics argue that the term companion animal is preferable to the label pet, since the latter fails to respect an animal’s dignity. They also prefer guardian or carer to the more commonly used owner, which they say implies that the pet is a slave. This concern for animals’ dignity and rights has coincided with a sharp increase in the availability of commodities and services aimed at those same animals. There are now countless pet obedience training services, pet insurance companies, and pet toy companies, as well as a booming industry in organic pet food (including gluten-free, non-GMO, “ethically sourced” products with brand names like Honest Kitchen and Freshpet), the packaging of which, as one dog food developer told The Atlantic, “looks nutritious and healthy—it looks like something I’d buy at Whole Foods.” Pet food choices increasingly mimic humans’ favorite foods, such as “seasonal instant eggnog” and gourmet beef jerky. Americans seem happy to pay for the privilege of catering to their pets’ newly discovered, sophisticated tastes: Last year, pet owners in the United States spent $30 billion on pet food.44xJoe Pinsker, “The Humanification of Pet Food Is Nearly Complete,” The Atlantic, October 26, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/10/pet-food-organic-gmo/574060/.

Clues about our changing feelings toward our pets can also be found in children’s stories that feature animals. Classic animal stories such as Old Yeller, with its hardscrabble stray dog who fights off rabid wolves and its tough-love ending that demands courage and steely resolve from Old Yeller’s young owner, have given way to tales more suited to our therapeutic age, such as Flora & Ulysses, in which the pet (in this case, a squirrel) is an empathetic rodent with superhero powers who helps the book’s ten-year-old protagonist cope with her parents’ divorce. 

Online and on social media, pets and their owners pursue followers and Likes with a fervor even the most determined reality-TV star would admire. The Dogs of Instagram, which features pictures of cute canines from around the world, has more than a million followers. Pet owners who post videos of themselves talking about their animals (from large snakes to cuddly kittens) on YouTube have spawned a subculture of “PetTube” stars who secure endorsement deals and cultivate a large number of fans. Contemporary films also offer stories in which master and pet roles are reversed, with pets firmly guiding the lives of their flawed human companions: The recently released movie Alpha gives the origin story of the dog-human relationship the full Hollywood treatment, showing a callow boy who grows into a man only with the aid of a wolf. Likewise, in the 2017 movie A Dog’s Purpose, the life of a single dog is treated as a story of karmic significance, as the soul of the saintlike animal is repeatedly reincarnated in a different dog in a different time and place, always displaying an unerring instinct to do right and save the humans around him, often at the cost of his own life. He makes Lassie look like an underachiever. 

The most recent installments of the Jurassic World movie franchise opt to turn the fearsome velociraptors of the first Jurassic Park movie (which tore people to shreds and terrorized innocent children) into pets of a sort—trained, quasi-tamed, loyal, and empathetic. Even animals not featured in movies nevertheless become celebrities in their own right: An entire website is devoted to the fabulous lives of celebrity pets, including Gunther III, a German shepherd whose owner (Karlotta Liebenstein) left him $80 million when she died, and Piggy Smallz, pop singer Ariana Grande’s pet piglet, who also makes frequent appearances on Grande’s Instagram account and was the star of the singer’s recent video for her single “breathin.” Celebrities often post images of their pets on social media, such as the one featured by actor Mickey Rourke on Instagram in November: It was a picture of Rourke feeding his Pomeranian mouthfuls of spaghetti with a fork while the dog sat serenely in a high chair at the table of an outdoor café. (Celebrity pets—they’re just like us!)

But our changing feelings about our pets are most starkly revealed by our consumer choices: how much and for what we are now willing to spend to make our pets happy and healthy. For New Yorkers who can afford the service, My Dog Hikes will pick up dogs in Manhattan and take them “away to the New Jersey countryside for three-hour hikes in the woods” every week, even as those lucky dogs’ owners toil away in cubicles to pay for it. (The company sponsors “pawrent teacher conferences” to keep owners up to date on their pets’ adventures.) Likewise, professional dog runners will take Fido on strenuous jogs along the East River. It’s “the canine equivalent of self-care,” the New York Times notes approvingly.55xKate Dwyer, “City Dogs Unleashed,” New York Times, November 11, 2018, ST1.

When pet owners must leave their pets behind for a few days, they now have the option of lodging them in luxurious accommodations. A 2010 Wall Street Journal story described a newly constructed $4.4 million boarding facility in Fort Worth, Texas, that offered suites with “custom upholstered beds, chenille and satin blankets, 18-inch flat screen TVs—and a dog treat on the pillow.”6Ana Campoy, “At This Hotel, Even a Pooch Can Live in the Lap of Luxury,” Wall Street Journal, September 11, 2010, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704358904575478101934394026. The D Pet Hotels chain, with locations in Hollywood, Chelsea, and Scottsdale, offers themed accommodations such as the British-inflected “Winston Suite,” complete with an à la carte menu (including sirloin steak) and a bed with a memory-foam mattress and Ralph Lauren sheets. “Pets can be picked up from your home and taken to the hotel in your choice of a Ferrari, Lamborghini Gallardo, Bentley, Porsche, or Rolls-Royce,” according to Elle Décor. Pets in the Washington, DC, area can stay at one of three Olde Towne Pet Resorts, which offer their guests pampering spa treatments such as blueberry facials and mud baths. And then there’s Chateau Poochie, in Pompano Beach, Florida, whose amenities include “bottled water, gourmet meals cooked by a chef on site, tuck-in and story-time services and aromatherapy treatments.”77x7 Kelsey Kloss, “The 10 Most Luxurious Dog Boarding (aka Pet Hotels) in the United States,” Elle Décor, January 12, 2017, https://www.elledecor.com/life-culture/g3494/best-dog-boarding/.

Even for cash-poor pet owners who can’t afford spa days and guided hikes for their animals, the reigning assumption is that humans should adapt to and accommodate the needs of their pets rather than the other way around, with the language of parenthood invoked to shame pet owners who might skimp on their responsibility to do so. As one dog owner in New York told the New York Times, “By choosing to be a pet parent, especially in New York City, we are going to have to make some accommodations.” This is perhaps why more apartment buildings in many cities now offer their tenants dedicated pet services such as doggy play dates and grooming services.88xRonda Kaysen, “Who’s in Charge Here? It’s the Dog, Of Course,” New York Times, November 11, 2018, RE4.

These rising expectations also explain the increasingly stringent requirements for obtaining a rescued animal as a pet. As Emily Yoffe documented in Slate, the process of adopting a “rescue” now resembles the screening procedure for a top-secret security clearance, with demands to produce multiple references and submit to home visits before an animal is released to its “forever home.” As Yoffe writes, “Some rescue groups think potential owners shouldn’t have full-time jobs. Others reject families with children. Some rescuers think apartment dwelling is OK for humans but not for dogs, or object to a cat’s litter box being placed in a basement. Some say no to people who would let a dog run around the fenced backyard ‘unsupervised,’ or allow a cat outside, ever.” One Labrador rescue group asks applicants whether they plan to have (human) children, who theoretically might compete for attention with the rescue dog. A guinea pig rescue organization refused to allow an adoption by a couple who admitted they wanted guinea pigs for their children, as this was viewed as the “wrong” reason for wanting a pet.99xEmily Yoffe, “No Pet for You,” Slate, January 26, 2012, https://slate.com/human-interest/2012/01/animal-rescue-want-to-adopt-a-dog-or-cat-prepare-for-an-inquisition.html.

There are even acrimonious custody disputes over pets when married couples divorce. A 2013 article in the American Journal of Family Law related that some animal advocates are urging courts to treat pets not as property (which is their current status under law), but more like children when it comes to custody, weighing the “best interest” of the pet when determining custody and visitation rights, for example.1010xCharles P. Kindregan Jr., “Pets in Divorce: Family Conflict over Animal Custody,” American Journal of Family Law 26 (Winter 2013): 227–34, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2176952.

 

Nearer and Dearer

 

To better understand our current relationship with our pets, we might usefully recall an earlier human effort to corral and control animals: zoos.  Zoos were originally designed to maximize people’s ability to safely see wild animals they might never encounter otherwise; the animals were intended as a spectacle for our amusement (and possible edification). Today, by contrast, zoos market themselves as spaces for conservation, education, and protection, not spectacle, and animal enclosures mimic the natural environment, often at great expense (and often at the cost of zoogoers’ ability to see the animals). Even SeaWorld, which once thrived on turning killer whales into seemingly obedient performers, has been forced by shifts in public opinion (and the death of an orca trainer) to end its orca shows and phase out its orca breeding programs—in effect acknowledging the unjustness of forcing certain species of animals to live out their lives in captivity.

Instead, we have redirected our human desire to watch wild animals by mediating it, as the proliferation of live “animal cams” available for 24-7 viewing online attests. You can watch Alaska’s grizzly bears fatten themselves with salmon in real time, or observe a baby bald eagle hatching in its nest. You no longer even need to physically go to a zoo to see animals. The Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC, like many zoos, now offers high-definition live animal cams of its elephants, lions, giant pandas, and naked mole rats on its website.

The array of mediated experiences of these kinds is perhaps why our only direct physical contacts with animals—those we have with our pets—have encouraged us to grant them greater emotional salience in our lives. In earlier eras, when more people lived alongside working animals on farms, an encounter with the barn cat that kept down the mice or the dog that helped herd sheep was mundane. Today, pets occupy a more intimate space in our lives—literally and emotionally—and as a result they influence the rhythms of many people’s daily existence in new ways. They are viewed as members of the family, with the full range of emotional investment such status brings. As Froma Walsh, a University of Chicago psychologist who studies family health, told the New York Times, “The word ‘pet’ does not really capture what these animals mean in a family.” Like many researchers, Walsh uses the term “companion animal” because, as the Times notes, it is “closer to the childlike role they so often play.” There are geographical and class differences at work here as well. The Times notes that sociologist Elizabeth Terrien found that less wealthy people from rural backgrounds still tend to view their dogs as “guardians to be kept outside,” for example, while “middle-class couples typically treat their hounds as children.”1111xBenedict Carey, “The Emotional Power Broker of the Modern Family,” New York Times, March 15, 2011, D5.

We haven’t always been this sentimental about our pets. A 1915 guide to keeping pets written by an American naturalist included this admonishment: “There is no excuse for pampering, constant fondling, dressing up in clothing, and other ridiculous customs.”12Quoted by William Brennan in “The Future of Pets,” The Atlantic, January/February 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/01/the-future-of-pets/419133/. There are plenty of contemporary naysayers as well—some of whom argue that it is unethical to keep pets at all. Two law professors from Rutgers University who write about animal rights (and also own six rescue dogs) describe their dogs not as pets but as “non-human refugees with whom we share our home.” They argue, “Although we love them very much, we strongly believe that they should not have existed in the first place.” That’s because the two professors “oppose domestication and pet ownership because these violate the fundamental rights of animals.” Pets are little more than “animal slaves,” they say, and it is morally wrong to own them and treat them as property. “We love our dogs, but recognize that, if the world were more just and fair, there would be no pets at all, no fields full of sheep, and no barns full of pigs, cows and egg-laying hens. There would be no aquaria and no zoos.”1313xGary L. Francione and Anna E. Charlton, “The Case against Pets,” Aeon.com, September 8, 2016, https://aeon.co/essays/why-keeping-a-pet-is-fundamentally-unethical.

Where does this leave the two-thirds of Americans who live with animals (according to a 2011 Harris poll)? Are our feelings of connection and love for our pets dysfunctional?  Are we guilty of enslaving and harming innocent creatures? Not entirely. Hal Herzog, a psychologist and the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight about Animals, notes that pets can give people emotional ballast, sometimes more than their fellow humans are capable of offering. “In a survey by the American Animal Hospital Association,” Herzog writes, “40 percent of married female dog owners reported they received more emotional support from their pet than from their husband or their kids.”1414xHal Herzog, “Why People Care More about Pets Than Other Humans,” Wired, April 13, 2015, https://www.wired.com/2015/04/people-care-pets-humans/.

But the intensity of many people’s feelings toward their pets prompts the question, At what point does emotional support become unhealthy fixation or dependence? Our pets shouldn’t function as four-legged Valium tablets or substitutes for human friends and partners. A culture that encouraged a sensible understanding of pets’ place in the social order would not produce a show like one that aired for several years on the Animal Planet channel: It’s Me or the Dog.

“There’s so much projection of ourselves onto our pets,” Monica Murphy, a veterinarian in Brooklyn, told Psychology Today. “Animals actually absorb some of our personality traits, so we can try to describe our animals in an objective way and still end up describing ourselves.” Murphy is sympathetic to the fact that “people have elevated animals to a more privileged place in the household,” and points to the likely culprit: loneliness. “We crave coming home to the same face every day…and the animals do help fill in some of those empty places.”1515xCarlin Flora, “On the Job: The Pet Whisperer,” Psychology Today, January 1, 2006, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200601/the-job-the-pet-whisperer.

At a time when a growing number of people live alone, a turn to animals for emotional support is hardly surprising, even if it is not ideal. “With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange,” John Berger wrote in Why Look at Animals? “Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species.”1616xJohn Berger, Why Look at Animals? (New York, NY: Penguin, 2009), 15. It’s not a coincidence that many of the therapy robots developed to comfort older people (many of whom live alone) are made to resemble animals: PARO is a cuddly baby seal, and Sony’s Aibo looks like a friendly small dog, for example. 

But there are risks to this way of thinking. Last fall in Washington, DC, a dog ran after a robber who had just attacked the dog’s owner. As the dog approached the assailant’s car, another person in the car shot the dog in the head. (The dog lost an eye, but survived.) The outpouring of public anger on the dog’s behalf was remarkable. “We need a new law: shoot a dog, do twenty years,” a commenter wrote on the Washington Post’s website. “The robber potentially stole something of irreplaceable value: the life of the man’s best friend,” another person posted. Post columnist Theresa Vargas found such sentiments unnerving. “In the years that I covered crime it always struck me—and sometimes bothered me—how people could care so intensely about an injured animal but not always about a person who was hurt or worse,” Vargas wrote. “It seemed wrong that a story about battered dogs could garner more sympathy or outrage than one about battered women.”1717x17 Theresa Vargas, “A Dog Was Shot in the Face. We Care, But Do We Care More Than If It Were a Human?” Washington Post, November 14, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/a-dog-was-shot-in-the-face-this-is-why-that-is-so-disturbing/2018/11/14/b27d30e4-e793-11e8-a939-9469f1166f9d_story.html.

But this shouldn’t surprise her. The more helpless a living creature, the more likely people are to respond with horror and disapproval when someone harms it. And as decades of advertising and cultural messaging have taught us, what’s more innocent than man’s best friend?

 

Full Disclosure

 

I am late in disclosing a personal stake in this discussion of pets: I grew up with dogs and am a dog owner now. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I sometimes talk to my dog as though he were a precocious toddler rather than merely a canine, or that I happily spend what seems like an exorbitant amount of money on his favorite bully-stick treats. The dog has encouraged my children to be more responsible and empathetic. He’s helped me develop closer relationships with other dog owners in my neighborhood, with whom I gather regularly in a nearby open space to let our dogs play together. I would also be lying if I didn’t confess that there are times when the dog’s ability to understand the people he lives with seems uncanny, almost human. Our dog is an impish and much-loved creature in our household. But he’s not a person. Nor do we treat him like one. His place in the hierarchy of family needs is secure, but subordinate. We do our best to meet his needs, but we don’t assume that he has the same needs we do as human beings. 

It wasn’t until I read the work of Oxford University professor Marian Dawkins that I fully understood our family’s philosophy of pets (such as it is). “If somebody’s going to argue such-and-such improves animal welfare, I would say well, what’s the evidence that it either improves their health or it gives the animals what they want?” Dawkins said in an interview with Edge.org. “If you can’t show that, then however much you think you might want it, it doesn’t seem to me that it actually improves animal welfare at all.”

Dawkins takes a pragmatic approach. “Let’s go for something tangible, something we can measure. Are the animals healthy, do they have what they want? Then if you can show that, then that's a much, much better basis for making your decisions,” she says. She is withering in her criticism of those who would either anthropomorphize or speculate about animals’ needs based on their own. “In some ways, the floodgates have been opened, and people think that you don't need any evidence to talk about animal consciousness, that you can just imagine animals as like human beings—a very anthropomorphic view,” she says. “You could talk about them as having feelings just like other humans; you don't need science to tell you anything about it. You just use your kind of intuition.… I feel that there’s a huge danger in this, because to see animals just like humans, it seems to me, is to miss the biological basis of what they actually are and can lead you into really quite difficult waters.”1818x“What Do Animals Want? A Conversation with Marian Stamp Dawkins,” Edge.org, October 31, 2012, https://www.edge.org/conversation/what-do-animals-want.

Dawkins’s rational approach is far more appealing than our current self-indulgent anxiety about our pets. Adopting her sensibility would protect pet owners from overvaluing or sentimentalizing the therapeutic power of their pets. It might also protect the pets from us by freeing them from the burden of being our emotional support system. There’s a thriving market in antidepressants for pets (one company markets its chewable, beef-flavored doses of Prozac under the name Reconcile to treat separation anxiety and other behavioral problems), and the cause of their suffering is often the person purchasing the cure.

Animals once “constituted the first circle of what surrounded man,” John Berger wrote.1919xBerger, Why Look at Animals?, 12. We lived with and among animals, relying on them to survive. Today, by contrast, that proximity is largely gone, with one exception: “Pet keeping is the only one-on-one relationship with animals left to most of us,” Katherine Grier writes.2020xGrier, Pets in America, 17. As such, it has taken on outsized significance.

As more people live alone and greater prosperity encourages more spending on pets, we would do well to reconsider the place of domesticated animals in our lives. The danger isn’t that we will further enslave our pets. It’s that our focus on our individual “pet children” will prevent us from noticing that by lavishing so much attention and emotional care on our pets—even to the point of elevating them to the status of moral beings—we ignore another animal in need of care and feeding and moral education: Homo sapiens.