A few years ago, my family gained a new member, a four-and-a-half year-old poodle named Katie. We announced her arrival in the usual way: a Facebook status update, attaching a photo of the dog, my older son, and me. “Our new daughter,” I wrote. I marked the day the following year, this time attaching a selfie of Katie and I staring soulfully into each other’s eyes, with the equally simple note, “Mother and daughter.”
“Cutie,” one person responded. “You daughter and my boy Otis would be love at first site,” claimed another.
No one wrote, “Helaine, are you insane?”
It’s possible no one expressed concern because some of my friends have known me long enough to recall a time when I was known to many as the mother of Rupert, a dog with the face of Benji and the soul of Cujo. I toted Rupert around faithfully for years, once even taking him to sit on Santa’s lap at a local West Hollywood pet store. In other words, they know that for me, thinking of a pet as a child is totally normal.
Surveys show the vast majority of American dog owners say they consider their pets on par with family members, with half claiming they are pet parents. Actor Bradley Cooper, when asked about his two dogs Samson and Charlotte, responded, “They’re my kids.” Referring to a pet as a child is so common and normal in our society, the Oxford Dictionaries added the phrase “fur baby” last year. A full third of dog owners join me in going all the way, not only calling ourselves by the phrase “mom” or “dad” but also referring to the dog as a “son” or “daughter.”
As it turns out, science is on our side. Dogs, with their wide eyes, remind of us of infants. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to discover that shelter dogs are more likely to be adopted the more frequently they use their muscles to make their eyes appear wider. Oxytocin, the hormone thought to play a significant part in the bonding between mothers and their infants, increases in both owners and their dogs if they stare into one another’s eyes. The author responsible for that bit of information would go on to tell the New York Times: “There is a possibility that dogs cleverly and unknowingly utilized a natural system meant for bonding a parent with his or her child.”
It works. A study published in 2014 by the science journal Plos One found that the brains of mothers of children between the ages of two and ten who also owned dogs would light up in extremely similar ways when shown pictures of their human and canine progeny. And why wouldn’t they? A year earlier researchers in Austria determined dogs formed attachments to their owners the same way as human babies, viewing their caretakers as touchstones for their interactions with the wider world, a process called the “secure base effect.” In one study dating back to the 1980s, 38 percent of dog owners asked to draw a diagram of themselves and their family members placed the canine in the position closest to them. Perhaps this all explains why a study published this year in the journal Memory and Cognition discovered family members not only accidentally call family members by the names of other family members, but also often slip-up and use the name of the household pooch. When interviewed by Science Daily, lead author Samantha Deffler recalled her mother routinely referred to her by the name of her sister, brother, and family pit bull. One other thing about that study, something that no doubt gives cheer to dog partisans everywhere: People rarely made the same mistake with cats.
Still, what’s natural to some is cloying and offensive to others. Referring to an animal, especially a dog, as a child is a regular staple for Internet rage. Pet Parents are NOT Moms, a blogger for the Huffington Post once declared. Saying Your Dog is Your “Baby” is an Insult to Mom’s Everywhere, Your Tango headlined earlier this year. More than a few seem to think pet “moms” and “parents” are a victory by the companion animal industrial complex, a.k.a. Big Pet, as Slate’s Torie Bosch claimed when she wrote a piece decrying the trend in 2013.
But just because the pet industry pushes the practice, doesn’t mean we’ve all fallen for a scam. It helps to think of our pet/child obsession as a slow, 200-year upgrade in the status of the animals of our lives. The growing urban middle class of Victorian times, separating into nuclear families as they gained distance from rural life, slowly ceased viewing dogs primarily as working animals and began to, instead, see them as beloved companions. Over time, animal cruelty laws passed, and the animal rescue movement grew. In recent years, the amount we spend on animal medical care is soaring, and people ranging from Queen of Mean Leona Helmsley to the Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon have set up trusts to ensure their dogs are cared for after their death. Just this year, New York amended its laws so that human cemeteries can now bury dogs next to their owners.
Our changing lifestyles no doubt play a role in all this. Surveys say many of us have fewer friends and are lonelier than in the past. At the same time, we live longer and marry later. It should come as no surprise to discover that millennials—who are delaying childrearing until later in life—are more likelier than average to both own dogs and buy them less-than-needed items like pet clothes. This is, many experts agree, a trial run for parenting. Last year, an analyst with Wakefield Research, a market research firm, told the Washington Post, “When you’re preparing for your first child, you’re reading all the books, doing all the research,” adding, “That’s how millennials are approaching pet ownership.”
The real question, of course, is whether we who call our dogs our children and ourselves their parents actually consider our dogs on par with our human sons and daughters. And, here, the evidence is, mostly—of course not! Parenting a dog, unlike parenting a child, is a voluntary relationship that can be ended at any time. I can, unfortunately, use myself as an example here, too. Our dearly loved Rupert actually spent the last year of his life living with his dog sitter, after he snapped and growled multiple times at the human toddler who called me mama. When it came down to it, I knew the difference between a human child and a canine companion.
As for Katie, she entered our lives at a time when the human children no longer needed constant, hands-on care, and were, in fact, old enough that they no longer wanted mama to show much affection for them in public at all. Katie doesn’t object to that. No wonder I’m so smitten I call myself “mama” and Katie my “daughter.” And, yes, this is perfectly normal. But even if it wasn’t I’d still do it, and do it proud.