With more people adopting pets in the U.S., and with the demographic crisis in the Western world worsening, an interesting divide between pet owners and parents seems to be forming. Particularly dog owners seem to be criticized more than any other pet owner for the strong love of their four-legged friends and the labels they wish to adopt.
Many a dog owner has viewed themselves as a “pet parent” or “dog parent”, and would often call their pups their “babies”. While this seems appropriate to some, others see it as weird, wrong, and even harmful for society. A number of people have voiced their concerns and anger over owners labeling themselves as dog parents, and this was expressed on Reddit (here and here, for example), and many op-eds have been written, like M.A. Wallace's article in The Cut or Julia Dent's article on Intellectual Takeout.
Those who oppose the term “dog parent” made the following arguments:
- Calling your pets and dogs your “babies” is inadequate and simply incorrect;
- Viewing yourself as a “pet parent” isn’t healthy for your own psyche as it distorts your view about your pets and the way you plan your life;
- The rapid increase in pet ownership and dog ownership harms the traditional family, as it further incites people not to procreate and worsens the demographic crisis in the Western world.
The latter point – as ridiculous as it may sound to some – is even making its way into pop-culture. Take a look at the animated movie “The Boss Baby”, where the villain of the movie is creating a new breed of “super-cute” and “never-aging” puppies to make sure that everyone wants a puppy and no one wants or makes babies anymore. Yes, a kids’ animated movie was pushing the message that puppies are evil and threaten to destroy our society. As much as I love Alec Baldwin (who voiced the main character in the movie), I couldn’t help it but be irked by that particular plot point.
I'm not here to discuss the demographic crisis of the developed world in detail. It’s a complex enough social and political issue that has a lot of causes and contributing factors, some of which may have something to do with dog owners calling themselves “parents” and the opposition's negative view of that. Things like:
- The fact that the modern world offers too many opportunities and career paths that people can choose over focusing on their families.
- The fact that with both genders being a part of the work force, taking care of a family becomes more challenging.
- The fact that more and more people feel morally obliged not to contribute to the constantly increasing population of the planet, even if the population of the Developed world is shrinking.
- Or any other of the countless factors and causes, each more controversial than the other.
Are puppies, compared to all those other problems, contributing to people not wanting to have kids? Is the correlation between the demographic crisis and the increase of pet ownership indicative of causation? It's possible. Owners who prefer to call themselves “dog parents” have also voiced their reasons for that in response to the above negative views, and those have been often seen in reddit (like in this thread).
There are appear to be several real factors for more pet owners now calling themselves dog parents. The popularity of dogs and other pets likely has some effect. After all, they are 10-15 year commitments that satisfy our human and parental needs to take care of someone. It’s easy to imagine that a certain percentage of people that don’t currently have kids would have had at least one child if they hadn’t gotten a dog instead, as several owners have noted in their reddit comments.
But the opposition's point, to blame pets, and the love we give them, for our social and demographical problems, seems quite ridiculous to me. Said social issues have countless of others far better solutions than guilt-tripping dog owners for loving their pets and adopting labels such as “parents”.
The question remains, are do dog owners justifiably call their dogs “their babies” and view themselves as “dog parents”? As far as I'm concerned, yes, and here's why.
Dogs may not be our actual human children and they may not grow up to be working humans that can support us financially, but in terms of concept of love, they can give us just as much as our own children, and we can reciprocate in the exact same way. And isn’t the love and care we give our children and the love they give to us in return the main reason for a person to become a parent?
In that sense, caring for a dog is comparable to caring for a human baby. In fact, if you compare the way owners care for their dogs and the emotions they share with them, it's hard to argue about the similarities that exist between that and caring for a human baby:
Adopting and caring for a dog, you’ll make his life infinitely better. Dogs are highly intelligent and very emotional social beings, which is clear when comparing them to something like a pet fish that you'd normally just feed and that's about it. Dogs need your attention, your love and your emotional care, and you expect the same from them. The more you love your dog, the better the bond between the two of you will be.
The more significant your love for the dog is, the happier you yourself will feel, and it all comes back to oxytocin present both in humans and dogs. It is one thing to take care of a flurry “toy” that barks and needs to be walked outside, and it’s a very different thing to love someone who you view as your own baby and who views you as your guardian and parent that provides a home and food.
In that sense, the species of “your babies” is practically irrelevant. In the last several decades there have been a lot of studies out there that point out how our pets’ behavior and features match our parental instincts. Things like cats’ adorable mewing, or puppies’ irresistible eyes are specifically evolved to trigger our love and affection, just as the baby’s cry is intended to be irresistible to its mother.
Our dogs and other pets love us as if we are their parents, so why would it be wrong (or harmful) in loving them back the same way? For our pooches, we are their parents, their leaders, their best friends, and their most important person in the universe. Compare that to the way children feel about their parents. Therefore, to many dog owners, it seems perfectly justified that we return that love and call ourselves “dog parents.”