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

From Saturday's Globe and Mail – with correction

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

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.

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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“Pet” certainly seems like an outdated word.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?

Baby boomers, in particular, have seized on pets to fill the void of empty nests and too much time on their hands – at least half of them choose to own an animal, despite the limits that imposes on aging boomers’ child-free liberation. To make sense of this, just read the daily death announcements, where faithful pets now occupy pride of place among the bereaved. Or contemplate a study that revealed the health-giving aspect of an old person’s pooch: Dog owners who have had heart surgery are more likely to get up sooner and take their canine companion for a walk. Animals give us a purpose, a sense of meaning, an altruistic obligation to be active and aware.

Younger people know this as well. Whether because they don’t trust an uncertain economy that prizes short-term contracts and low-wage jobs, or because they resist the existing models of maturity and adulthood, they’re putting off marriage, children and other lifelong commitments. Once again, that leaves pets as emotional substitutes, as a way to overrule the world’s disappointments.

Our current pet culture relies on a basic standard of wealth – two-thirds of Canadians with a household income over $60,000 own a pet – and increased urbanization has clearly favoured the humanizing approach to our formerly functional animals. You can see this especially vividly in instantly modernizing countries such as China, where the old-fashioned rural dehumanization of animals exists side by side with an exaggerated infantilization of pedicured, costumed, continually videoed pets in nouveaux riche cities.

And who are we to talk? Our liberated animals regularly sleep in our beds, share our mealtimes and TV viewing, dominate our conversations, preside over the more benevolent corners of Internet, increasingly influence urban planning, and absorb much more of our discretionary spending – right down to the last artisanal doggie cupcake.

 

Unconditional love

But happily indulging all this devotion makes sense too.

Our pets supply a loyalty that is hard to find in a downsized economy; they don’t judge us or leave us for someone younger or gossip about us behind our backs. They’re used more and more in therapy situations because of their wide-ranging affection – they don’t feel our need to make superficial distinctions between pretty and plain, mobile and disabled, self-assertive and shy.

Dogs and cats are also much more comfortable than humans with prolonged eye contact. Anyone can look into their eyes and get something back.

“The eyes are called the windows into the soul for a very good reason,” says Michael Meehan, who teaches at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph. “There’s very strong evidence that when we stare into someone’s eyes for a period of time, everything else dissipates and we feel a strong connection.”

We get that connection like no era before us. According to a 2010 Harris/Decima survey, 53 per cent of Canadian pet owners think animals are more reliable than humans because of the “unconditional love” they can offer. About 80 per cent of us consider our animal to be at some level a member of the family.

“I just want something in my life that is lovely and still knows the natural way of things,” says documentary filmmaker Helen Slinger of North Vancouver, who shares her jogging routes and home-office workspace with a husky-whippet cross. “Dogs have not lost the ability to experience the pleasure of the moment.”

That pleasure-filled immediacy challenges our own more deliberate, inhibited approach to the world. Ms. Slinger recalls a phone call (“Do you have a lovely husky…?”) soon after her dog had shed her on a run, found her way through the automatic doors of a local supermarket and parked herself at the meat counter.

“It could be embarrassing,” she says, “but the other good thing about animals is that they help you get over yourself. You love them and you deal with what they bring you.”

 

Not everyone is a pet person

That’s clearly a pet owner speaking. But if it can feel like animals, and their human attachments, rule the world, there is that other 50 per cent of households to contend with. This is where social tension creeps in, as assertions of pet rights bumps up against people who feel that our animals should know their place – in arguments about off-leash zones in parks, say, or the rights of not yet fully domesticated cats to roam freely and kill wildlife.

The trade-offs will not be easily resolved. Pressure from empowered dog owners to create an off-leash area in Toronto’s Ledbury Park generated powerful animosity from nearby residents, who had their sense of urban serenity disrupted by the happy-dog pandemonium. The off-leash experiment was curtailed, but only after a legal appeal by a vocal dog owners’ group was rejected by the Ontario Superior Court last year – and a $15,000 charge was imposed on the off-leash advocates.

Ms. Slinger featured that protracted conflict in her documentary Dog Dazed, and found herself questioning her own views about spats over off-leash rights in Vancouver’s idyllic but environmentally sensitive North Shore watershed.

“I went in as a raving dog person – there’s this great big area and my dog is good. But people are so blinded, they can’t see past the oxytocin that looking into a dog’s eyes stimulates. I got so fooled by the pleasure I get from running with my dog through this wilderness that I couldn’t see how many thousands of other dogs were running through here as well, and how many other species these dogs were interfering with. I pride myself on holding the big picture in my mind, but I had lost it. We really cling to protecting our dogs like they are our kids, but in ways that are destructive.”

I see this as a particular characteristic of dog lovers, who feel compelled to assert their rights and righteousness within confined cities that struggle to accommodate canine expansionism. Ms. Slinger won’t let me get away with my feline aloofness and superiority.

“We rationalize what we need to rationalize as human beings. You rationalize the impact of a cat who ‘mostly’ catches mice. My dog ‘mostly’ stays on the trail. We both find ways to make what we need sound okay.”

This awkward co-existence between pet owners and the rest of the world is more of a struggle than it has ever been. “I don’t think we’ve begun to figure it out,” says Alexandra Horowitz, professor of psychology at Barnard College in New York and author of Inside of a Dog. “Dog parks are a place of tension, especially when you get dog walkers taking many animals to the dog run. You’ve got animals with an abundance of energy who are often not well supervised, all interacting in a very small space – which for dogs must be an olfactory minefield. God, how bizarre that must be for them to walk into.”

The dog park, like so much else in our animals’ lives, is designed above all for us and our needs – even if we’re blinded by the way it seems to suit our pets.

“I believe we’re not treating our dogs as well as we can,” Prof. Horowitz says. “People say, ‘My dog has the best food, his health care is paid for, I take him out every day, let him sleep in a bed.’ My answer is that you’re not really paying attention to what the dog experiences through the day and what he really wants. “

Dogs (and cats and birds and fish for that matter) don’t experience our world the way we do. Dog raincoats fit dogs because they’re made to do so, but they don’t suit them in any higher sense. Pet cuteness of the Facebook doggy-birthday kind is entirely in the eye of the beholder.

“Their unwillingness to refuse you doesn’t mean that they enjoy this treatment,” Prof. Horowitz says.

 

Company, and responsibility

All these conflicts and uncertainties seem to undermine the foundations of our pet utopia. Yes, spending on pets has risen immensely – by 652 per cent since 1981. But the biggest spenders were, not surprisingly, wealthier dog owners in the more settled state of midlife. The number of animals who still find their way to shelters is proof that many people can’t or won’t cope with pets and their complex needs.

“People now pick out a dog over the Internet, from Kijiji, take it home and bring it to us after a week because it’s not friendly enough,” says Gail Watt, a volunteer for the SPCA in the Montérégie region southeast of Montreal. “But it takes months for certain dogs to fit in, and they need guidance. Our society has become too geared toward instant expectation and instant success.”

There is a flip side to that very modern kind of human-animal mismatch: the increasing devotion shown to rescue animals. By their own calculation, it took Clair and Steve Rabbetts five years to teach their last rescue Airedale, Roxy, to fit comfortably into this world.

So why take on such a huge task? “It’s the company and the companionship,” Ms. Rabbetts says. “There’s nothing like coming home to someone who’s happy to see you. Whatever your day has been like, they take you out of yourself. It gets depressing without a dog, life becomes too internal – with a dog like this, you always have to be paying attention.”

We shouldn’t always make human-based assumptions about what works best for pets. It might be expected that urban pets would get short shrift – people are busy, high-rise environments are confined, self-centred city dwellers treat pets as ornaments, all the usual Lost Eden stereotypes.

“It’s interesting how people think that living in a city is not good for dogs,” Prof. Horowitz says. “In reality, what’s good for dogs is living among people and other dogs. Because of their social nature, what’s bad for them is an isolated world. The city obliges their socialization: You have to take the dog out and then the dog interacts with other dogs. And so it winds up being a different kind of dog, much more social and ‘human-like’ because it has to navigate the same circumscribed spaces that we navigate.”

We certainly work hard to accommodate dogs in big cities: the proliferation of doggie daycare centres, clothing stores and pet-progressive offices is now part of the urban cliché. Cities like Toronto design their parks to drain dog urine, and monitor the population needs of their growing condo towers, where every floor includes half-a-dozen outgoing dogs.

Other pets aren’t so completely integrated into our world as yet – domestic cats still resist the indoor lives recommended by protective animal shelters. And part of their charm, at least for those who admire felines (1 in 20 people appear to harbour an innate revulsion), is that they clearly don’t want or need to be your best buddy.

Yet there is no shortage of cat enablers who are now determined to create a comfort zone for animals who used to be left to their own devices – hence the urban “cattery” or “catio,” an outdoor mesh enclosure that allows indoor animals a protected experience of the real world without the dangers and vet bills and unneighbourly wrangles that usually go with it.

An added bonus: “My clients say that it relieves stress,” says Kris Kischer, who operates Habitat Haven in Toronto and ships her enclosures across the continent.

 

A private language

The bottom line? The roles of pet and owner have undergone a reversal – we want to make our animals happy.

“Our society now recognizes that the human-animal relationship is a legitimate attachment,” says Prof. Meehan, who supervises the Ontario Veterinary College’s Pet Loss Support Hotline – a listening service that allows bereaved owners to share their innermost thoughts about the meaning of a pet’s loss.

A profound reaction to a pet’s death would once have been regarded as abnormal and even deranged – unless it were a military animal like Alexander the Great’s loyal horse, or the service dogs whose deaths in action bring police handlers to tears.

The animal that can catch and hold the attention of a human-centred world has an immense evolutionary advantage, as dogs and cats have clearly demonstrated.

“Other animals can be tamed and trained, can be habituated to people and come to trust them, but only dogs and cats have this deeper attachment,” says John Bradshaw, director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol and author of Cat Sense, a new scientific guide to felines. “They learn about us and discover how to interact with us very early in their development, at exactly the same time they are learning about each other.”

While dogs interact with humans almost as second nature, the meowing and purring cats use to catch our attention is a relatively recent development. Kittens in the wild meow and purr, but it’s uncommon for adult cats to do so, until they have contact with people. Then their range and repertoire expands tremendously – the hungry meow, the door-opening meow, the angry meow. “Basically it’s a private language developed between the individual cat and its owner,” Mr. Bradshaw says.

The more of this kind of intimate communication we share, the stronger our relationships – and the stronger our commitment to prolonging our pets’ lives. Guelph’s veterinary college operates a multimillion-dollar animal cancer-care clinic, which, Prof. Meehan says, “is driven by social change, not by the priorities of government or the university. People now support the idea of managing disease and illness in their pets just as you would manage disease and illness in someone you’re closely attached to.”

 

Is it worth it?

And why not? Over the many years of a pet’s life, they become the stable focus of a household where the human occupants constantly come and go. If you want a dependable greeting when you walk through the front door, a cat or dog is much a better bet than overly busy or technologically distracted or emotionally absent partners, siblings, friends and children. People, rightly or wrongly, are caught up in their own lives, but pets are always there for us.

Yes, it’s hard not to keep coming back to the question of how distorted our understanding of our animals has become. Dogs don’t demand cute frog cupcakes.

And while most human owners are smart enough to figure that out, we still find pleasure in the babying form of indulgence – an animal’s eagerness for a treat is gratifying, but it’s only a legitimate gift if it takes a form that we as humans can recognize.

“Thinking of an animal as a little person is such an intrinsic part of the enjoyment we get from pets,” Mr. Bradshaw says. “It’s very difficult to detach oneself from this point of view.”

And we can’t totally blame our current culture. Mr. Bradshaw reminds us that pet keeping is “a universal human trait.” We have extended the range of that trait, to be sure, but even our strangest behaviours are rooted in basic human and animal nature. Pictures of puppies and kittens prompt changes in oxytocin hormone levels normally associated with the effect babies have on their mothers. Whatever our pets’ intent, it’s to their long-term evolutionary advantage to be babied by humans.

Of course, we can easily explain our attachment to pets in less mysterious (if equally manipulative) ways.

For Christine Deacon, a legal editor who shares her cattery-equipped downtown Toronto house with two formerly stray cats, her feline devotion began with “a nurturing desire to look after something dependent – or at least we deceive ourselves into thinking they’re dependent. I don’t buy this whole notion of pets and unconditional love, but it’s good to feel you’re doing something useful.”

But pets, the longer you live with them and the more you come to appreciate their complexity, offer much more to their observer-companions. “They’re infinitely amusing, the sinuousness of a cat is a thing of beauty, they have very distinct personalities,” Ms. Deacon says.

As for the unexpected vet bills, the advance travel planning that requires the booking of a skilled cat-sitter, the ruined artwork that can’t withstand the distinctively destructive personality of a playful kitten: “It’s all worth it,” she says, “because they’re very nice to have around.”

Of how many of us can that be said?

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said there are 14 million pets in Canada. In fact, there are 14 million dogs and cats and 25.5 million total pets when you include birds, fish, reptiles etc.