It’s been an interesting few weeks since our Chincoteague home went belly up (and with it our plan to pay our debts); my identity as a tenor was shaken; and Sasha tore her ACL. All First World Problems, to be sure, but still unsettling, at best.
The comments that followed last week’s post, the one about Sasha’s torn ACL, brought home to me that the way people l
ook at feel about their pets is both culturally determined and personal. And those comments and some emails I got led me to do some investigating into the bond that forms between humans and their pets. Today, I’ll report on what I’ve learned.
The ancient (culturally based) relationship between wo/man and dog is alive and well.
From feral dogs and cats neglected on the streets to an evening meal made of dog meat, perhaps no single cultural difference stands out so dramatically among Returned Peace Corps Volunteers as the ways in which dogs and cats were treated differently in the countries in which we served, while back home, pets have grown into a $60 billion annual industry (not including horses). (The same amount as the weight loss industry)
Our pets have become a $60 billion industry.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, pet owners spend more on their pets each year then they do on alcohol, men’s and boys’ clothing, or landlines. Pet spending is recession-proof too, as evidenced during our recent economic downturn. Absent a recession, however, spending on pets increases every year.
There’s the cost of food and basic vet services, of course. Then there is pet insurance, beds, clothing (winter and rain coats, sweaters and boots), and car seats. There are ramps and doors and gates; leashes and collars and carriers and crates. Amazon has a page devoted just to the urns and other memorials you can buy for your departed dog.
There are dog treadmills and a device called iFetch that will throw balls for your dog to retrieve (the dog then brings it back, drops it back into this contraption, and out it flies again).
There was even a bill introduced in Congress a few years back (a Republican from the midwest) seeking a $3500 tax deduction for each pet.
Yes, we in the western world love our pets.
The human-animal bond is ancient.
Dogs are thought to be the first animal to be domesticated 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, with cats arriving a mere 6,000 years ago. How they surmise these things, I do not know.
In deference to Sasha, we’re focusing on dogs today. We all know the many uses dogs have been bred for: sheep herding, rescue work, drug sniffing, pulling a sled, sentry duty, and serving as guide dogs for hearing-or vision-impaired persons. The Red Cross began using dogs to help search for wounded men on the battlefield during World War I; by World War II, the U.S. Army had followed. And we all know the stories of the dogs who worked at Ground Zero in the aftermath of 9/11.
That’s utility. Task. Function. Purpose.
People owned dogs; dogs worked at whatever they were good at.
Where did the idea of dog as family member arise?
Wondering where the idea of dog as member of the family arose, I Googled it.
Let’s start with a 2015 article from the UK’s The Daily Mail, covering a survey of 1,500 dog owners:
- Nearly nine in ten consider their dog a ‘fully-fledged’ member of the family.
- More than half would be sadder if their dog died than if an uncle, aunt or grandparent passed away.
- Half admit their dog’s needs had influenced major life decisions.
- One in two dog owners believes their pet knows what they are thinking or what mood they are in.
- Two in five share their suppers with their pets.
- A third of Britain’s dogs have their own designated chair in the living room.
- One in four dog owners have given their pet its own social-media profile.
Great Britain’s The Telegraph reports that
… the nation’s mothers-in-law have suffered what could be the worst indignity yet after having their place in family life officially supplanted – by the dog.
That was pretty funny. But then I found a Psychology Today article by a British Colombian professor of psychology, reporting on the findings of another study, this one with 1,000 respondents.
- Nearly 60% believe that their dogs are currently more important in their lives than were the dogs that they had during their childhood days. Two out of three also feel that they are more caring and treat their pet dogs better than did their mother and father.
- Pet owners of today seem to blur the lines between children and pet dogs in many ways. For example, 81% of those surveyed consider their dogs to be true family members, equal in status to children.
Equal in status to their children? Really?
I was brought up in the “dominion over the animals” era. Of course, dogs were “livestock” back then. When did they become family members? And why? Google wasn’t helping. So, I thought.
I decided it was with Old Yeller. (1957)
Lady and the Tramp (1955) came first, but that was a cartoon, so it didn’t count.
And there were all those Lassie TV shows (from the mid 50s to the mid 70s) where Lassie does her little dance and the people know that means “Timmy’s fallen in the well” or whatever. Remember that?
Still, I wanted more.
It must be more than mass media nostalgia that brings our dogs into our family circle.
The research is actually quite clear that having a dog in your life brings with it numerous emotional, physical, and social benefits.
Having a dog in your life brings with it numerous benefits.
- They offer unconditional love and affection (and attention).
- They alter our behavior: getting us out of our heads and onto our feet.
- They promote touch.
- They increase our social life. Who hasn’t started a conversation over a dog?
- They teach us responsibility or at least provide us a chance to act responsibly. I like to think they bring out our higher selves.
- They are good for our health:
- Petting a dog has been shown to reduce both heart rate and blood pressure, pain, allergic sensitivity, depression, and stress while
- Just gazing into their eyes improves the immune system, and increases our oxytocin levels
- They can detect cancer.
How about you? Does the Lassie in your life get a place at your table?
Next week: I’m tempted to post about what else we can get with $60 billion a year. Let me know if that’s of interest.