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Are Pets Really Family?

This common sound-bite needs reconsideration

The other day, I was with my two dogs, Maya and Bella, at one of my local parks. I was throwing the ball for Bella and letting Maya nibble on grass. Maya started barking at a woman walking past. I apologized for Maya’s rude behavior—she doesn’t always follow the conventions of human etiquette—and the woman was very nice and said “Don’t worry about it. I’m a dog person.” She went on to tell me about a Manchester Terrier she had had and how much she had adored the dog. She said that watching Bella chase reminded her of him; and she pressed her hands over her heart, in an “I love you” sign. And she told me and how her little terrier was obsessed with balls. He would stand at the top of the stairs and drop the ball and watch it bounce all the way down; then retrieve the ball and do it again. Then she said, “I got rid of him when I moved.” On the outside, I kept a poker face and said something trite like “That’s too bad.” And inside, I’m thinking to myself, WTF? This dog is part of your family and when you move you just get rid of him? Now, I know this sounds just as judgmental as hell, but seriously: what does “pets are family” really mean?

It is something you say. Everybody says it. “Pets are part of the family!” is a mantra of the media, the pet industry, and even the academic veterinary literature. You’ll often see the figure, “90 percent of pet owners consider their pet part of the family.” (A survey published in Scientific American Mind contained this interesting tidbit: snake owners are more likely than dog or cat owners to consider their animal part of the family.)

And, indeed, a good number of pets are considered part of a family. In a well-known study by Sandra Barker and Randolph Barker from the 1980s, dog owners were asked to complete what is called the Family Life Space Diagram (FLSD), in which symbols representing family members and dogs are placed within a drawn circle representing one’s “life space.” In 38 percent of the diagrams, the dog was placed closer to the self than were other family members. Similar studies of pets’ placement within a family constellation have similar results: pets are quite often drawn very close to the center—closer even than human family members. Asked which one person they would bring to a desert island, a surprising number of people say “my dog” or “my cat” rather than “my husband” or “my wife.”

Yet an animal’s status is oftentimes shifting. Ethnographic research shows us just how tenuous human-animal bonds can be. Maybe the relationship becomes strained by what the human perceives as “behavioral problems” in the animal, or maybe there are changes in the human’s situation (divorce, illness, loss of job, new baby) which that make the animal’s presence inconvenient. Either way, the animal is often simply ejected from the family system. As Israeli anthropologist Dafna Shir-Vertesh phrases it, animals are “flexible persons” or “emotional commodities.” They are persons when we want them to be, and when we tire of them or they create tension in a family or we are moving house, they are demoted to “just a dog.”

I will admit that I have repeated the “90 percent of pets are family claim” myself. It is one of those soundbites repeated so often that it takes on a ring of having always been true. What started to make me really wonder about the statement was doing research for my most recent book, Run, Spot, Run (coming out this spring) which is about the ethics of keeping pets. I was getting email alerts on various words and phrases, one of which was “death and pet.” Every day, I would open the email with the catalog of media reports from around the country… and it was sickening… and every day, it was the same. There would be at least six or seven, often many more, newspaper headlines about the horrendous treatment of pets. Dogs left to starve; tethered to cars and pulled to their death; cats smashed with a shovel; burned with chemicals. How could a nation in which pets are family generate this much abuse? Two reasons: being part of a family doesn’t mean you are well-treated or immune to violence. In fact, it can be the very source of your trouble. Second, contrary to the media, many, many people don’t consider their animals as family.

I dug in a little and tried to track down where the “90 percent of pets are family” data came from. This sound bite—and that’s really all it is—comes from an online survey of 1200 pet owners, conducted by the American Pet Products Association—basically, a marketing survey done on people who purchase pet products. This does not count as “data.” What happens is that because “pets are family” it is broadly assumed that they live pampered lives. So, when you look through tables of contents of books about animal ethics and animal welfare, there is rarely any discussion of companion animals and their problems. But the animals who share our homes need protection, too. There needs to be ethical scrutiny of how people treat their animals, what kind of care they give, or, especially, fail to give.

The ideal is that companion animals are, indeed, integrated into families and treated with the respect and care that—within a functional and kind family—other humans would be treated. Whenever you hear the “pets are family” think of it not as a fact, not as the way it is, but as a moral and practical ideal. We should be cautious about using the phrase “pets are family” as an endorsement of the way companion animals are currently treated or as a sign that all is well, but should use the language of ‘family’ very mindfully and with attention to what is at stake. We should all be working to create conditions in which animals really, truly have this special place in our hearts.

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