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Kittens in the wild meow and purr, but it’s uncommon for adult cats, until they have contact with people. (Darren Hubley/iStockphoto)
Kittens in the wild meow and purr, but it’s uncommon for adult cats, until they have contact with people. (Darren Hubley/iStockphoto)

Our pet-obsessed culture: What does it mean for humans? Add to ...

There are 25.5 million pets in Canada, and we’re spending more on them than ever before. These stories explore how the animals among us are shaping us all.

Some time in the hour before sunrise, as the first birds prepare their predawn songs, my orange cat Toby rises from his nighttime position between my legs and walks up to the head of the bed. He flops down and starts purring, loudly enough that I wake up and rub his fur with the half-awake hope that he and I will both go back to sleep.

The pet society: Why we love our furry companions

That never happens, no matter how contented and people-pleasing he sounds at 4:22 a.m. If I begin to doze off, he gently and methodically paws my face. Usually he’ll prod my dormant eyelid with the brilliant cat understanding that an opened eye eventually leads to an upright human and an unlocked front door.

But sometimes he’ll press his delicate paws on my lips as well, near the scar he inflicted on his first night with my family a decade ago, when we didn’t yet understand each other’s ways – by suppressing my breath, he makes it clear that his diurnal rhythms take priority over my all-too-human lethargy.

Sometimes I wish he was one of those submissive animals who recognizes his lowly place in the antiquated schemes of creation. It would keep him out of the male-dominance scraps that have cost us thousands of dollars in vet bills (all too willingly paid).

But most of the time, I feel the daily privilege of knowing him as a dependable friend, a teacher of evolutionary strategy, a killer of mice (and the occasional bird), the ultimate processor of external stimuli, a master of mind control, the de facto ruler of the street, at least in his opinion, and of course a cat god. Feel free to call me crazy. But in the conflicted and distracted world I inhabit, Toby is the ultimate arbiter of sanity.

It’s often said that the key to our odd love of other animals begins with the basic human longing to nurture: They need us. But it’s just as important to recognize the changing balance of this relationship: More than ever before, we need them.

 

Filling the void?

“Pet” certainly seems like an outdated word.

Dogs have been domesticated for roughly 30,000 years, and cats for around 10,000, but only recently has power shifted in their favour. The creatures who were once our labourers and our servants, those hangers-on who guarded flocks or rid settlements of vermin in exchange for human protection and rarely saw the inside of a house or the warmth of a smile, now share and shape our lives.

I don’t remember many pets from my grandparents’ generation, certainly not the doted-upon darlings we surround ourselves with today. There were the timid barn cats who lived self-sufficient lives beyond human attention or the affable farm dog who chased groundhogs for pleasure and was allowed to warm himself by the stove at the end of the workday. But the limits were clear.

Now, the number of pets have risen above 25.5 million in Canada, and our animals have become one of us – human equivalents to be talked to and fussed over, family members who are loved in life and mourned in death. Their elevated status and new-found styles of behaviour would astonish our harder-hearted ancestors.

Just don’t dare to suggest that all this fawning over our pets is ultimately a form of narcissism, an attention-getting device where we lavish inappropriate feelings on creatures who are designed by evolution and breeding to throw it right back us – even as we diminish the status of other intelligent animals who minister to our carnivorous needs.

We are, after all, part of an unparalleled moment in domestic-animal history, as demographics shift in parallel with societal norms to support a new kind of pet-owner relationship. In a sluggish economy, households shrink in size, and mobile families have naturally grown more disconnected – who are you likely to feel closer to, a sister on the other side of the country that you glimpse once a year at best (or worst), or the dog who is always there when you are?

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