Full disclosure: I am a dog mom.
My baby’s name is Samson. He’s a two-year-old Maltese/shih tzu cross — a handsome little fella with a wonky underbite, soulful brown eyes and a big personality. The kindly neighbour calls him "Mr. GQ" when he wears his charcoal grey J. Crew-esque turtle-neck sweater. (Yes, he owns a charcoal grey J. Crew-esque turtle-neck sweater.)
I regale friends and co-workers with what I think are adorable, witty stories about his various quirks. I flood my social-media feeds with photos. Samson in the porch. Samson in the park. Plaintive Samson. Artsy Samson. Samson in repose. On my desk at work is a framed photo of Samson and his dad, my partner. Our mothers refer to him as their grandchild. We’ve raised him from puppyhood. We can’t imagine our lives without him.
I am not alone. Many pet owners no longer think of themselves as owners — they think of themselves as mommy and daddy.
Fifty-seven per cent of Canadian households include a pet as do 68 per cent of American households. They have become members of our families. We’re devoted to them. We take care of them. We shift our schedules around for them. We consider their needs — often before our own. (It’s telling that during the recession of 2008, the pet industry continued to grow in the United States.) We provide them with education in the form of obedience classes. We take them to daycare. We pour our hearts — and savings — into making sure they are healthy and happy.
But does all that mean we’re "parenting"?
Many critics, such as Slate’s Torie Bosch, who wrote a piece pointedly titled I Am Not A Pet Parent, believe Big Pet — or the more menacing-sounding Pet Industrial Complex — banks on us adopting the "pet parent" designation, ostensibly working under the theory we will spend more money on our pets if we treat them like our children.
And we are definitely spending more money. In Canada, pet spending is projected to hit $6.6 billion in 2014 according to the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council of Canada (PIJAC). In the U.S., the American Pet Products Association (APPA) has the number for 2014 creeping toward the $60-billion mark. As Time magazine pointed out, that’s more than the GDP of Croatia. Or $10 billion more than Germany’s defence budget. In Canada, spending has steadily grown at a rate of four to 4.5 per cent per year.
And there’s no shortage of things to spend money on, from doggy day spas — such as Winnipeg’s White Lotus, a chic boutique spa in Osborne Village — to gourmet treats (pupcake, anyone?). People throw pet birthday parties and pet weddings. Luxury pet resorts are popping up all over North America; at Jet Pet Resort, located at the Vancouver International Airport, pups can rest up in posh suites (complete with chandeliers and plasma TVs) and enjoy amenities such as an on-call chef and massages — "because your dog deserves a vacation too!" Seems indulging one’s pet is no longer the sole province of the very wealthy — although the very wealthy take it to the next level. Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld’s beloved kitty, Choupette, has not one, but two maids.
Japanese pets also enjoy a privileged, if sometimes quirky, status. Pet cafés proliferate — some for owners to try menus along with their dogs, others for petless patrons to enjoy the company of a cat for an hour.
Of course, there’s an argument to be made those extravagant purchases stroke the egos of the owners more than they benefit their pets. After all, an animal with a fondness for eating its own poop probably doesn’t need a personal chef. Which begs the question: Who is it all for?
Pet owners are not just dropping thousands of dollars on the, um, fluffy stuff. We’re also spending more money on veterinary care — largely because we can. According to the APPA, Americans will spend $15.25 billion on vet care this year. Overall, great advances in veterinary medicine have resulted in longer, healthier lives for our pets — but with more treatment options come more tough choices for owners.
David Grimm, a deputy news editor at Science and the author of Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, has been there. His cat, Jasper, was five months old when he went into kidney failure. Putting him down wasn’t on the table. The kitten spent three days in intensive care, undergoing ultrasounds, urinalysis and blood-chemistry profiles. He saw an internist and a kidney disease specialist. Grimm spent $3,000 on emergency care. Today, Jasper is a healthy, happy, nine-year-old cat.
"That was a lot of money for us back then, but we were happy to spend it because he’s a member of the family," Grimm told the Free Press by telephone. "We’re in an interesting place. Not only do we have the option to spend that kind of money, it’s become socially acceptable to spend that kind of money. Thirty years ago, if Jasper had gone into kidney failure, I would have been told to either take him home and try to make him as comfortable as possible or put him down. Everyone would have been comfortable with euthanasia because it was the only option.
"Now, if your dog has cancer, it creates a dilemma for owners. ‘How can I euthanize when there are all these options? What if I can’t afford the chemotherapy? Am I a bad person?’ Vets are dealing with it, too. ‘Should I even mention the knee replacement if I know my client can’t afford it?’ "
Of course, putting a price on life isn’t the only ethical dilemma modern pet owners are facing. How much is too much? Hal Herzog, a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University and the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals, recalls a recent conversation he had with a vet. "I remember he said, ‘I’m glad I deal with animals instead of humans because one of the tools in my arsenal is euthanasia.’ You have to think, who are you doing it for? The animal or for you? Some people can’t face that decision so they prolong suffering."
To Herzog’s mind, there are two demographics more likely to treat four-legged companions like people: child-free millennials and empty-nest boomers. "One of the biggest things that’s happened is that people are getting married and having children later," he said by telephone. "The groups that are most attached to their pets are people without kids. Married people with kids are the least attached to the pets — but once the kids are gone, they become surrogate parents to pets."
That, he says, goes a long way in explaining this recent trend. "I think it’s the logical extension. Before, they were metaphorical children; now they are literal children."
Or, in some cases, practice children.
Savanna Matyas is a self-described dog mom to Otto, a two-year-old miniature schnauzer that looks wise beyond his years (it’s the grey coat). The 29-year-old occupational therapist shares dog-raising duties with her husband, musician Rusty Matyas. The pair got Otto when he was seven weeks old. "I’ve never done that before," she says. "I’ve had family pets where it’s shared with the family, but this is the first time I’ve raised a little one."
Having a family pet, she quickly learned, is not the same as having your own pet. "There’s definitely more responsibility," she says. "It’s funny. Training him, Rusty and I would have to take turns letting him out at four in the morning and arguing. We’d joke that it was like getting up to tend to the baby who’s crying."
According to recent research compiled by Nathan Richter of Wakefield Research and presented at PIJAC’s annual conference in April, 82 per cent of millennials view pets as practice for starting their own family. Savanna is one such millennial. "When we first got Otto, people would say ‘Oh, he’s your practice baby.’ And, in some ways, it’s a little bit accurate. As a couple, we’ve had to step up together and care for another being." (Her mom calls Otto her grandbaby.)
Of course, not all millennial owners are champing at the bit to buy a one-way express ticket to Babytown. Many are living happily child-free with their pets — much to the chagrin of folks like Pope Francis who, in June, caused a stir when he cautioned married couples not to "replace" kids with pets, lest they end up bitter and lonely.
"I can see where some people would get offended by that," Savanna says of the pet-as-practice presumption. "I don’t get offended by it because we want kids and it is good practice for us. But I also know a lot of people who have pets that never plan on having any kids, and you get that fulfilment from having your pets and you don’t need to have a kid. They get that extra love there and that makes them happy."
Otto is beloved, to be sure, but he will not be staying at a luxury penthouse suite any time soon. "We don’t spend a lot of money on him, except for food. I’m pretty crafty with toys."
An old sock tied around a water bottle is all he needs for a good time. His treats are apples, carrots and ice cubes. He gets all his shots. Savanna cuts his hair herself between groomings. "It’s probably pretty obvious," she laughs.
• • •
Sadie might be the most photographed dog in Winnipeg.
The spunky seven-year-old shih tzu belongs to Liz Hover, 40, director of National Screen Institute Online, who is very passionate about her dog. "I’m sure people already think I’m a crazy dog lady," she says with a laugh. "It’s hard to know what people say behind your back — and I don’t mean that maliciously. I think people know that I am obsessed with Sadie and it’s a part of who I am."
Sadie is a dog with a huge online presence. Her award-winning blog, Hi, I’m Sadie Shih Tzu, launched in 2009 when self-described web gal Hover had begun overseeing NSI’s digital presence. "There were lots of things I needed to learn about — Facebook and Twitter among them — but I was reluctant to be so public about myself."
So, she began blogging (or impersonating, as she calls it), Facebooking and tweeting as Sadie. "It was fun and funny and got an emotional response from people." It wasn’t long before the shih tzu racked up a celebrity following on Twitter; Ellen Degeneres and Bif Naked are among her followers.
These days, Hover’s been focusing on Sadie’s Instagram, @sadieshihtzu. She has 8,897 followers. (I have 214.)
"I’m on Instagram all the time. I’m commenting on other shih tzus and liking photos as Sadie. I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with it — maybe it’s because it’s a ready-made community of people who are as bonkers as I am."
Hover, who was raised in London, England, wasn’t always a dog person. "Growing up, I never owned a dog. I never wanted to own a dog. My partner’s ex-wife had two shih tzus and we’d often go to her house. They were very friendly and very sweet — but I was like, ‘You stink and you’re leaving fluff all over me and you’re trying to get my attention, but I’d rather drink wine.’ I was disinterested."
That all changed when she spent two weeks dog-sitting Sophie, one of those shih tzus. "I fell in love with her. I didn’t know it was happening until I had to return her. I think I cried. I don’t know what it was about having the companionship of a dog. It took me by surprise." Sadie came into Liz’s life on Aug. 16, 2008. "I could hold her in the palm of my hand. I can’t describe what it was like. It was wonderful."
Sadie might fit the description of a pampered pet, but Hover tries to keep her budget under control. "I try not to be ridiculous. I don’t buy her lots of treats or clothes. I do give her a raw diet. I used to cook and prepare all her food, but it ended up costing $60 every two weeks and it was a lot of effort. I love Sadie, but it was becoming more expensive than the food the humans were eating in the house."
For now, Sadie gets regular vet visits. "I don’t know how I will respond if she gets sick or when she gets very elderly," she says. "I may be OK, or I may be tranquilized. But I think a very expensive medical treatment may be for the benefit of the owner and not in the best interest for the dog."
We might fancy ourselves pet parents — or, to use a less loaded term, guardians — but in the eyes of the law in both Canada and the U.S., pets are considered property and we are their owners.
"Like it or not, the legal status of animals is such that we own them," Herzog says. "You can buy and sell these creatures. Increasingly, we think of them as our children and friends. There’s a mismatch between the psychology of our relationship and the legal status of pets."
The Criminal Code of Canada controls human behaviour in relation to animal suffering, but the animal-cruelty sections of the code have not been substantially updated since they were enacted in 1892. Many groups have lobbied for the passage of Bill C-229, a private member’s bill tabled in 2009 by former MP Mark Holland that would modernize wording, close loopholes in offences and increase maximum penalties, among other changes. The bill has not become law.
That mismatch between our relationship with our pets and their legal status was one of the issues that inspired Grimm to write Citizen Canine. "I think people are aware of what’s happening socially — the spas, the doggy cupcakes — but I wanted to explore what most people don’t know, and that is the legal status of pets."
Matyas wasn’t aware Otto is, in the eyes of the law, no different than her toaster — to borrow an analogy from Grimm. "That’s pretty devastating. That says to me, if someone ran over my dog, there’s no consequences."
Through four years of research, Grimm’s own thoughts about extending legal rights to our animals changed.
"I knew the legal status of cats and dogs as property but, considering that 90 per cent of owners consider them family, initially I thought ‘obviously that has to change.’ But through interviewing people, I realized it’s a complicated issue. The elevated social status isn’t uncontroversial, but the legal status is more controversial. It creates a lot of dilemmas for owners. Say, all of a sudden, you’re the legal guardian of your pet. If you don’t walk your dog three times a day, could a protective service come take away your dog?"
Herzog thinks animals we hold in special regard — dolphins, great apes — will get legal protection before pets do. But he, too, says it presents dilemmas. "The problem is, we love animals — but we also love to eat them. People are very conflicted about that. Can animals have the right to live if we eat them?"
Of course, the parent-versus-owner question isn’t just a legal one. Hover identifies as both a pet parent and a pet owner. She understands she and Sadie have an owner-pet relationship. "Someone asked me if she missed me when I was in England. She didn’t give a shit. She was cared for. I wasn’t going to fool myself into thinking she missed me. Sadie is very independent and Sadie thinks about Sadie first. The fact that I’m the one that feeds and bathes her is incidental. As long as her belly is rubbed and full, she’s happy.
"I know that there are dog owners who will treat their dogs like their children — and more than just in a maternal sense. They talk about them as if they are children. They change their outfits constantly. That’s not the kind of dog I have."
So, is the idea of pet parenting problematic? Or has it resulted in better lives for our pets? The answer is both.
"I think it definitely has (improved their lives)," Grimm says. "A hundred years ago, you didn’t have cat or dog food — you’d let them forage for themselves. Obviously, that idea extends to vet care. We expect it to mimic human medicine. Better care results in longer, healthier lives. It’s certainly to their advantage from a quality-of-life standpoint."
Hover isn’t so sure. "Part of me wants to say, ‘Of course it has!’ but I don’t necessarily think it has. I don’t know if treating animals like children in an unhealthy way is the right thing for the pet. I have a horrible feeling that if you spoke to a lot of pet owners, they would say, ‘Oh yeah, I let my dog have cheese all the time, or I let my dog eat crisps.’ I worry that we’re indulging our pets because we forget that they’re animals."
Herzog’s not convinced extravagant pampering adds to an animal’s quality of life — "I think it’s demeaning to dogs to think they’d want to dress up for Halloween" — nor does he necessarily buy into the narrative pets are beneficial to humans’ physical and mental health.
"My wife and I have always had pets, and they add a dimension of happiness to our lives," he says. "But do they have any actual benefit on health? I’m more of a skeptic than my colleagues. There’s just as many studies out there that say pets have no effect on loneliness or health. For every study saying that pet owners get more exercise or go to the doctor less, you can find a study that says the opposite. But the media likes feel-good stories. The positive studies about pet ownership are the ones that get picked up."
Still, he has noticed a few upshots to our increasing devotion to our pets, such as a decline in popularity of purebred dogs — a trend he attributes to the successful campaigning of animal protection organizations.
"It used to be that when people would talk about their dogs, it would be, ‘She’s a registered this or a purebred that.’ Now it’s, ‘She’s a rescue.’ There’s a moral ideal about the pets we rescue." That moral ideal, coupled with the spay and neuter movement, has resulted in a sharp decline in the number of unwanted dogs and cats killed in animal shelters. Herzog says the number dropped to about four million in 2007 from 24 million in 1970.
Grimm would also argue pets are increasingly becoming important contributors to society. He says dogs, in particular, often get a bad rap as "lap sitters and Frisbee catchers" — but there are many hard-working pooches out there providing support to people living with physical disabilities and mental illness. Cats, once associated with witchcraft and still often misunderstood and maligned as aloof, have been demystified a bit by social media: It’s telling that 10,000 people showed up to the inaugural Internet Cat Video Festival in Minneapolis in 2012. "Cats don’t do much to integrate themselves; they’re more of a challenge to get to know," says Grimm, who is more of a cats rule, dogs drool type. "The Internet offers this window into cat behaviour; dogs are out on the street, but you never really saw other people’s cats."
Grimm says advertising is playing catchup where cats are concerned, featuring more feline-focused campaigns; while dogs continue to be more popular offline, 45.3 million households in the U.S. own a cat.
And as our social interactions become increasingly screen-based, Grimm says pets represent an important connection to offline life. "Your dog or cat isn’t going to tune you out because he’s texting his friends," he says with a laugh. "It’s sort of the last constantly living, loving contact in our lives.
"As much as we give to these animals, they give so much back."