According to new research, dog and cat’moms and dads are actually parenting their pets

This looks a lot like parenting but with pets instead of people.

Can this caring for animals be considered parenting in the truest sense? Is there something else at play here?

As an anthropologist, I study human-animal interaction. This field is known as anthrozoology. I’m trying to understand pet parenting from an evolutionary science perspective. Cultural norms and evolution biology suggest that people should be focusing on raising their children rather than animals of another species.

Pet parents are more common than childless people.

The present moment is unique throughout human history. In many societies, such as the U.S.A., it is causing major changes to how people work, live, and socialize. People have more freedom to choose how they want to live their life. Fertility rates are lower. This can encourage people to pursue higher education and place more importance on the individual than family obligations. After the basics are taken care of, people can concentrate on higher-order psychological needs, such as feelings of accomplishment and a feeling of purpose.

People will now actively choose to concentrate on their pets rather than children.

In an earlier research, I interviewed 28 self-identified childless pet parents to understand their relationship with their animals better. They shared with me that they chose cats and dogs over children. Many people use parent-child terms as a shorthand. They might call themselves the “mom” of a pet.

The owners were concerned about the needs of their cats and dogs. They might, for example, satisfy the animal’s desire to forage using a puzzle while feeding most children at the table. Pet owners recognize that animals have different nutritional, socialization, and learning requirements than children. These pet owners were not replacing children with “furbabies” without thinking. They treated them as small, furry humans.

Pet parents may celebrate their dog’s first birthday with a special treat for dogs. photostorm/E+ via Getty Images

Other researchers have found similar links, indicating that pet owners who do not have children perceive their companions to be emotional and thinking individuals. Understanding the mind of an animal can lead to a sense of parenthood toward companion animals. Other times, individuals who are unsure of their fertility decide to stay childless by taking care of pets.

Humanity includes caring for others.

These findings do not answer the question: Do people who choose to have pets instead of children really parent their pets? In order to answer this question, I looked at the evolution of caregiving and parenting.

In 2009, evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Hrdy claimed that people are cooperative breeders. It is literally part of our DNA and ancestral history to care for children who aren’t our own. Anthropologists and biologists know this trait as alloparenting. This is an evolutionarily adapted trait that allowed humans who cooperatively raised their children to survive. This ancient environment likely consisted of small foraging societies where some traded child care for food.

This evolutionary history explains the pet-parenting phenomenon. It makes sense that people would alloparent animals in their homes if they have evolved to alloparent, and the environment has made caring for children harder or less appealing for some. Alloparenting can fulfill our evolved need for nurturing while saving time, money, and emotional energy when compared with raising children.

Do people have a different relationship with animals in families that include children? Mayte Tores/Moment by Getty Images

Untangling differences in caring for pets

I conducted an online survey through social media to gather responses from dog and cat owners in the United States over 18 years old. The survey asked questions on attachment and caregiving behavior using the Lexington Pet Attachment Scale. The survey also included a series I created to probe specific caretaking behaviors of humans towards pets, such as feeding, bathing, and educating them.

The final sample of 917 respondents consisted of 620 parents, 254 nonparents, and 43 individuals who were either undecided or didn’t respond. The majority of respondents had also been married or in domestic partnerships for more than one year (57%), were between 25-60 years old (72%), and held at least a Bachelor’s degree (77%). The majority of respondents were women (85%), and they were heterosexuals (85%), which is a situation that occurs frequently in research on human-animal interaction.

Parents and nonparents both reported high levels of training and playing with their pets. This is not surprising, as all pet owners must help their cats and dogs learn to live in a human-dominated world. The survey respondents mentioned socializing, enrichment, and training, as well as playing with their pets.

The nonparents are more likely to provide general care for an animal. This is not surprising since parents adopt or buy companion animals to teach their children responsibility and how to take care of others. Animal owners who do not have children invest their time, money, and emotional energy in their pets.

Nonparents report higher levels of attachment to their pets. They tended to view their pets more as individuals. Nonparents are also more likely than parents to refer to their relationship with their pet using family terms like “parent,” “child,” and “kids.”

This difference, along with my research indicating that these people are addressing the species-specific requirements of the cats and dogs in their care, suggests that pet parenting is truly parenting pets. Even though the specifics may be different, such as attending training classes in place of school events or giving dogs smell walks instead of coloring pages for children, both practices serve the same evolutionary purpose. Children and pets both have the evolved need to love, care for, and teach a sentient being.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *