By Jenna Goudreau
Or how our animals transformed into our four-legged children.
Charlotte Reed is a pet expert by profession and says she likes to be a "living example" for her clients. She and her husband have two cats and four dogs in their downtown Manhattan apartment, and she beams when they're complimented on their appearance or manners. "I'm a proud mother," she says.
The couple has no children, although each dog has been appointed a godmother and pictures of the "babies" are displayed in every corner of the house. The animals eat as well as their owners, including homemade treats and meals to ensure well-balanced diets. "They have rotating fish, chicken and meat," she says.
All four dogs sleep in the couple's full-size bed, packing in between Charlotte and her husband. Vacations are spent on the river rather than the ocean, which might prove too dangerous for the dogs. Even so, as a precaution, each dog dons a life preserver. For birthdays the pets receive presents and a card, which usually reads "Happy Birthday! Love, Mommy and Daddy" and is signed by the siblings.
Reed is not alone in considering her animals to be part of the family. America 's cultural pendulum has swung toward pets. According to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), a trade group, 62% of U.S. households own a pet, and most are willing to spend vast amounts of time and money to keep Sparky and Fluffy happy. The pet industry has tripled in the past 15 years. The APPA estimates pet spending will reach $45.4 billion this year, an increase of $2 billion since 2008--despite the crippling recession.
In the last few years, they've exploded into popular culture, too. As Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson are splashed across the celebrity glossies with their furry friends, the broader media followed suit. People.com offers the offshoot People Pets.com, AOL draws audiences with its new site Paw Nat ion, and icanhascheezburger.com gets hundreds of submissions daily of user-generated lol cats (laugh-out-loud funny photos of cats). Bo , America 's "First Dog," is still making headlines.
"People are fascinated by pets. We act and spend on them as if they were our children," says NYU sociology professor Colin Jerolmack, who studies animals in society. "We've civilized them to the point that they are no longer a part of wild nature." It wasn't always so. Just over a century ago in the 1800s it was very rare to have a pet, Jerolmack says. They were luxury items and status symbols of the bourgeoisie, showcasing that a family had the means and resources to own a pet. Animals then were purely functional; dogs were often used to hunt, and cats used to scare off mice. As society developed and technology advanced, the utilitarian use of pets waned.
Darwin 's speculations, too, brought to popular attention that animals might have selves and emotions similar to humans. Now, they are a middle class commodity that everyone wants. This trend is international: According to a recent CBS News report, there are now more pet dogs and cats--23 million--in Japan than there are children under 15. "We've started to celebrate the humanization of pets," says Alan Siskind, publisher of the online magazine Dog News Daily. "The lifestyle changes are dramatically influencing the products and trends." People are increasingly kissing their dogs, he says, so they stock up on the doggie mouthwash. Owners are sleeping with their animals more, so they invest in good flea medications, too. Siskind believes that we've humanized them to the point that we want them to have the same food, clothes, beds and even health care as us.
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According to APPA, women are the primary pet shoppers, leading 80% of pet spending. Now that pets have become an integral part of the family, Siskind says, women's pet spending reflects their "role as the primary care provider, nurturer and shopper for the human members of the household." He believes that pets are beginning to take a central role in many women's lives. It's now more common for women to be single and live longer, or to have delayed or abstained from having children or to be working from home. A pet serves as a companion and object of their affection. "Dogs are the four-legged child," says Siskind, and we're pampering them like never before.
On the market now for pets are braces, orthopedic beds, strollers, car seats, electric toothbrushes and fashion ensembles from faux-mink coats to jewelry and leather jackets. If you feel bad for neutering your pet, you can purchase neuticles--fake implants to restore what was lost. If your pet seems off-balance, there are motion sickness aides, antidepressants and anxiety medications. And just for kicks, owners can splurge on feline spas, dog massages, pet toy gyms, doggie hotels with HD television and a flight on Pet Airways, a new airline devoted to furry "pawsengers."
The pet market has ballooned to such a degree that Congressman Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mi.) is sponsoring a bill, H.R. 3501, which would give pet owners a tax deduction of up to $3,500 for pet care.
Wendy Diamond, editor of Animal Fair magazine and author of the upcoming It's a Dog's World, believes the trend will only continue to compound. With growing awareness about adoption and the positive health benefits of owning pets--including reducing stress and depression--more people will continue to treat them like extensions of their human selves. Diamond's observed the transformation in the past decade. "Ten years ago, they were in the doghouse," she says. "Now they're on silk dog beds or in your bed." But these considerations may not always be good for the animal.
Author of Understanding Dogs, sociologist Clinton Sanders, says pet obsession has been rapidly growing during the past 20 years. "The danger is that we don't let animals be animals anymore," he says. "It does them a disservice and results in some ignorant kinds of treatment.
"Dogs," he says, "would be perfectly content eating the same food every day for the rest of their lives. It tastes good, fills them up and never disappoints. A dog's owner, on the other hand, might say, 'I would never want the same meal again and again, how boring.' Then she goes to the store and buys her pup a variety of options, which in turn disrupts the dog's digestive tract." But, Sanders insists,"Dogs aren't like us."
Similarly, interpreting their behavior as if they were human can lead to false assumptions. Says Sanders, "People might believe the dog peed on their bed because she was angry that they were gone, but what if the dog has a urinary tract infection? It's an inappropriate way of understanding their behavior."
Why have they become so important to us? NYU's Jerolmack speculates that it may be due to people's decreasing connection to each other. In an era of online social networks, long work hours and distances between families, we have far fewer strong social ties and many more weak ties, he says. "We're spending a lot more time alone or with our immediate family. The companionship of pets has become much more valuable today."
Furthermore, relationships with pets are much less emotionally messy. They love you no matter what you look like or if your breath stinks. And they show affection consistently. Pets have become a relatively easy and loveable replacement of children or a strong community, which, Jerolmack warns, may lead to an impending culture clash.
"In the city, we're already seeing debates over park space going to kids or dogs," says Jerolmack. "There will be more people demanding social recognition of pets, wanting to bring their pets everywhere. And with an industry relying on them, I don't see us going backwards."
The Price Of A Pet
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