The following essay is reprinted with permission from The Conversation, an online publication covering the latest research.
Have you noticed more cats riding in strollers lately? Or bumper stickers that read, “I love my granddogs”? You’re not imagining it. More people are investing serious time, money and attention in their pets.
It looks an awful lot like parenting, but of pets, not people.
Can this kind of caregiving toward animals really be considered parenting? Or is something else going on here?
I’m an anthropologist who studies human-animal interactions, a field known as anthrozoology. I want to better understand the behavior of pet parenting by people from the perspective of evolutionary science. After all, cultural norms and evolutionary biology both suggest people should focus on raising their own children, not animals of a completely different species.
More child-free people, more pet parents
The current moment is unique in human history. Many societies, including the U.S., are experiencing major changes in how people live, work and socialize. Fertility rates are low, and people have more flexibility in how they choose to live their lives. These factors can lead people to further their education and value defining oneself as an individual over family obligations. With basics taken care of, people can focus on higher order psychological needs like feelings of achievement and a sense of purpose.
The scene is set for people to actively choose to focus on pets instead of children.
In earlier research, I interviewed 28 self-identified child-free pet owners to better understand how they relate to their animals. These individuals pointedly shared that they had actively chosen cats and dogs instead of children. In many cases, their use of parent-child relational terms—calling themselves a pet’s “mom” for instance—was simply shorthand.
They emphasized fulfilling the species-specific needs of their dogs and cats. For example, they might fulfill the animal’s need to forage by feeding meals using a food puzzle, while most children are fed at the table. These pet owners acknowledged differences in the nutrition, socialization and learning needs of animals versus children. They were not unthinkingly replacing human children with “fur babies” by treating them like small, furry humans.
Other researchers find similar connections, showing that child-free pet owners perceive their companions as emotional, thinking individuals. This way of understanding the mind of the animal helps lead to the development of a parent identity toward companion animals. In other cases, uncertain individuals find their need to nurture sufficiently …….