Is your pet a member of your family?

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By Marie Carter, Editor & Publisher, Pets Magazine – As published at Huffington Post.

Pets are increasingly regarded as members of our families. They are our companions, our best friends and our most trusted confidants. We love them and they love us back. Science has proven that, when a dog sees its owner, the so-called ‘cuddle chemical’ oxytocin is released in its brain.

Steven Kurlander in his Huff Post US blog has railed against the increasing humanisation of pets. He echoes, although in less pious terms, a rant by Pope Francis last year against the rise of pet parenting.

What’s so wrong anyway with treating a dog or even a cat like a ‘fur kid’? Or perhaps I am already on a losing argument when I use the term ‘fur kid’, as it is so often derided?

Pets, and particularly dogs, love us – as science has proven. A recent series of studies in the US prove that dogs experience emotions like love and attachment: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0038027

Pets have ‘personhood’; they can act and create a relationship. They can actively shape peoples’ connections with them and with other humans. At the positive end, they can teach those with learning difficulties or autism, for example, to engage and interact with the outside world. They can encourage the lonely to move outside of the home and interact with other people, thus improving mental health. Pets can also cause jealousy if they choose to attach more to one person than another. Like us, animals make choices.

The BBC’s Laurie Taylor on ‘Thinking Allowed’ this week talked about pets as family. He interviewed sociologist Nickie Charles who has carried out research into pets as kin. She has identified a special connection between people and pets that is largely intangible, but nevertheless complete. She cited the case of a woman visiting an animal shelter where a cat chose her – it meowed at her and it was love at first sight. Dogs and cats came out as having the greatest connection with humans. People tend to treat pets that live in cages such as rodents or rabbits as least likely to be classified as members of the family.

Pets are not an adjunct or an accessory in the family, they ‘are’ family. Responsible pet parenting simply means that you’re responsible for another living being, and if you don’t have your own kids, pets can fill a gap in our hearts. From the moment we bring a kitten or a puppy, or a rescue pet, home, we’re responsible for another life, for its sustenance, health and wellbeing. We buy a bed, food and toys and in the case of puppies, train them to do their business outside and away from our precious carpets and upholstery.

If you live alone, pet parenting can help stave off loneliness and encourage feelings of responsibility and maturity in caring for another being. On starting out in their new lives, many couples buy a house and then a pet, which is often a puppy, to make their new family more complete. Some years later, they might choose to have kids; but increasing numbers are not becoming parents and will instead stick to pet parenting. The birth rate is *falling but that’s not because people are choosing to become pet parents instead. That’s rather like the chicken and egg argument. The truth is that the birth rate is declining because of economic and societal pressures, and pets are filling a gap.

My dog reduces stress and contributes to my mental wellbeing. She gives and takes affection so wonderfully because hers is a pure emotion. Dogs are the only species that, like a human child, runs to its human when it is frightened, anxious or just pleased to see us. It is also the only animal, aside from other humans, that actively seeks out eye contact with people, and truly wants to be with us, unlike the aloof, still wild-at-heart cat.

It seems incongruous and anachronistic that dogs and other pets are still classified as property in law. Dogs at least should be given some form of legal guardianship. With the advent of ‘Pet Nup’ agreements in divorces, where pets are treated more like children in custody cases, dogs at least could one day soon have the legal recognition they deserve. Our pets should be classified as members of our family and not bundled in with the rest of our property. We are pet parents and not pet owners, after all!

As published at Huffington Post UK: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/marie-carter/pet-parenting-whats-so-wrong-with-it_b_7079174.html?utm_hp_ref=uk

* In 2013, the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) decreased to 1.85 children per woman, from 1.94 in 2012, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS.)


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