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Do People Really Care More About Dogs' Than Kids' Happiness?

Does a report comparing patterns of caring conflate correlation with causation?

Key points

  • A report showed more Google searches from people asking about their pet's happiness than about that of their child.
  • The larger number of searches for "is my dog happy?" than for "is my kid happy?" could mean people are actually looking for more information.
  • Perhaps there were more searches about dogs and cats simply because people know less about them than they do about their kids.
 Yan Krukov/Pexels
Source: Yan Krukov/Pexels

My email inbox has been ringing off the hook since a report called "Pets Are the New Kids, According to Google Search Trends" was recently posted. Part of the report's summary reads, "We analyzed Google searches and concluded that people care more about their pet's happiness than their kid's. [my emphasis] Based on Google trends, compared to the percentage of people who searched the term 'is my kid happy', the search volume for 'is my dog happy' is 451.16% higher. Simultaneously four times more people are searching for 'is my cat happy' than googling for their kids’ happiness."

Putting aside quibbles about what the word "happy" means, a point raised by no fewer than 12 people, there also are some other possible problems. The general tone of the vast majority of emails and other queries centered on the question, "Does the number of Google searches really equate with caring?"

A Pilot Study on Caring About Dogs' or Kids' Happiness

I also feel uneasy about the equation "number of searches = depth of caring," so I asked 85 people—some I knew and some I didn't, including eight who were visiting Boulder—"Do you care more about a pet's happiness than a kid's?" and, if they didn't have their own canine or feline companion or children, I asked, "Would you care more about a companion animal's happiness than a youngster's happiness?" Everyone was more than happy to answer one or the other question, and many asked why I was asking them. I focused more on dogs than on cats because very few of the people lived with cats, so I can't say more about these amazing beings.

Controlling as well as I could for variables including age, gender, socioeconomic status, marital/relationship status, whether people were or are active in animal protection movements, meal plan—carnivorous, omnivorous, vegetarian, vegan—and whether the people actually live with a dog and with or without kids, there were no differences among their responses, namely that they didn't care more about a dog's happiness than that of their children or that of other youngsters.1

Some hemmed and hawed and joked, but when I pushed them about who they would actually help to become happier if they had to make this decision, they chose the human. Frankly, I wasn't all that surprised.2

Some of the comments I received reflect these feelings and touch on a number of issues in which academics who study human–animal relationships (anthrozoologists) are keenly interested. These include the following:

  • I always would have more concern for any human's happiness than any nonhuman's.
  • I'd like to believe that I'd be more interested in a dog's happiness than that of some human's happiness, but in the end I still think I'd go with the human.
  • Well, that's a very difficult question for me to answer, but in some instances I'd care more for the animals but, if push came to shove, I'd intervene on behalf of the humans.
  • What a dumb question; I know it sounds like I'm a speciesist, but when all is said and done, I'd have to go with the human, and I volunteer for some animal protection groups. I suppose I'd call myself a "practical speciesist," and I suppose some people would think I'm a hypocrite, but that's how I'd put my caring into practice in the end.
  • In principle I'd always go with the humans but I often ask myself, if I really had to make this kind of choice, are there some people who I'd let be regardless of how they were faring? I'm not proud of this, but that's how I feel right now.
  • One woman wheeling her baby in a carriage with a dog on a leash said, "I love them both, but my kid's well-being comes first."

Correlation and Causation: Does the Number of Google Searches Truly Reflect Caring?

While the information provided in the study about which I'm writing is very interesting, the conclusions don't necessarily follow from the methodology. This is an example of conflating correlation—two or more events happen to occur together but one doesn't cause the other—with causation—one event directly causes the other.

One shortcoming to this report is that the number of searches doesn't necessarily causally reflect more caring, but, rather, the searches are correlated with attempts to gain more knowledge about what certain patterns of dog or cat behavior mean. Perhaps there were more searches for dogs and cats simply because people know less about them than they do about their kids and want to know more about how to make their pets happy. In fact, in the report we read, "the number of searches for 'how to make my dog happy' and 'how to make my cat happy' were also greater by 158.59% and 90.14%, respectively, compared to 'how to make my kids happy.'"

Along these lines, the authors of the report provide some tips for making your companion animal happy. They write, "The key to evaluating your pet’s happiness is observing their body language and behavior; any drastic and sudden changes in your pet’s behavior could be directly related to a change in their happiness; you can increase your pet’s happiness and well-being by spending more time with them and providing a safe and comfortable environment."

I agree with all of these suggestions. One excellent way to become fluent or literate in dog or cat is to read about them and to observe them carefully and essentially become a dog or cat ethologist by asking why they are doing what they are doing. I've been studying dogs for decades and, on occasion, I still learn something new from simply watching them in different contexts and also focusing on individual differences within this fascinating and diverse group of canids. What makes one dog happy, even among littermates and older siblings, will not necessarily make another dog happy. Their individual personalities matter.

Where to From Here?

I look forward to further studies on the general questions, "Do people really care more about a pet's happiness than a kid's?" and "What would you do if you had to make an on-the-spot choice about who to help along, a pet or a kid?"

Reading "Pets Are the New Kids" made me think about ways we could actually evaluate where people's preferences lie and what they would do if they had to make the choice of who to help along, a dog, a cat, or a kid.


1. None were homeless, and it would be interesting to know how they would answer the questions. For more discussion see My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals and Among Homeless People, Dogs Eat First and "Absorb Empathy."

2. For more discussion of inconsistencies in our attitudes about pets and people, see Herzog, Hal. Why People Care More About Pets Than Other Humans—Newspaper editors tell me animal abuse stories often get more responses from readers than articles about violence against humans. Do Americans really care more about pets than people? Wired, April 13, 2015.

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