New analysis suggests cat and canine ‘mothers’ and ‘dads’ actually are parenting their pets – right here’s the evolutionary clarification why
Both parents and non-parents reported high levels of exercise and play with their pets. (Pexels photo)
Have you noticed lately that more cats are riding in strollers? Or bumper stickers that say “I love my Granddogs”? You don’t make it up. More and more people are investing a lot of time, money and attention in their pets.
It looks a lot like parenting, but pets, not people.
Can this kind of caring for animals really be considered parenting? Or is there still something going on here?
I’m an anthropologist studying human-animal interactions, a field known as anthrozoology. I want to better understand human pet parenting behavior from an evolutionary science perspective. After all, both cultural norms and evolutionary biology suggest that humans should focus on raising their own children, rather than animals of an entirely different species.
More childless people, more animal parents
The present moment is unique in human history. Many societies, including the United States, are experiencing major changes in the way people live, work, and socialize. Fertility rates are low and people have more flexibility in choosing their life. These factors can lead people to educate themselves and define themselves as individuals in relation to family obligations. By taking care of the basics, people can focus on higher psychological needs like feelings of achievement and determination.
The scene is designed for people to actively choose to focus on pets rather than children.
In previous studies, I interviewed 28 self-identified childless pet owners to better understand how they treat their animals. These people demonstrated that they had actively chosen cats and dogs instead of children. In many cases, their use of parent-child relationship terms – they called themselves “mother” of a pet, for example – was simply shorthand.
It was important to them to meet the species-specific needs of their dogs and cats. For example, you can meet the animal’s nutritional needs by feeding meals with a food puzzle while most of the children are being fed at the table. These pet owners recognized differences in the diet, socialization, and learning needs of animals versus children. They do not mindlessly replace human children with “fur babies” by treating them like little, furry people.
Other researchers find similar connections, showing that childless pet owners perceive their companions as emotional, thinking individuals. This way of understanding the animal’s spirit helps develop a parenting identity with pets. In other cases, insecure individuals find their nutritional needs adequately met by looking after pets and cementing their fertility decisions in order to stay child-free.
Caring for others is part of being human
However, these results still don’t answer this question: Are people who prefer pets over children really parents of their pets? To answer, I turned to parenting and caring development.
Evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Hrdy wrote in 2009 that humans are cooperative breeders. This means that it is literally in our DNA and ancestral history to care for offspring who are not our own. Anthropologists and biologists call this trait alloparenting. It is an evolutionary adjustment that has helped people who cooperatively raised children to survive. For early humans, this ancient environment likely consisted of small, foraging societies in which some people traded childcare for food and other resources.
I suggest that it is this evolutionary story that explains pet parenting. If humans have become too alloparent and our environment now makes it more difficult or less attractive for some to look after children, it makes sense for humans to alloparently enter other species into their homes. Allparenting pets can provide a way to meet the growing need for care while reducing the amount of time, money, and emotional energy involved in raising children.
Unravel the differences in pet care
To better understand this phenomenon of childless pet parenting adults, I started an online social media survey looking for responses from US-based dog and cat owners over the age of 18. The survey included questions about attachment and grooming behavior with the Lexington attachment to pet scale. It also asked a series of questions that I developed to examine specific human grooming behaviors that target pets – things like feeding, bathing, and exercising – as well as how much autonomy pets have around the house.
The final sample of 917 respondents included 620 parents, 254 non-parents, and 43 people who were undecided or did not answer. Most of the respondents were also married or lived more than a year (57%), between 25 and 60 years (72%) and had at least a bachelor’s degree (77%). They were also mostly women (85%) and heterosexual (85%), a common situation in human-animal interaction research.
Both parents and non-parents reported high levels of exercise and play with their pets. This realization makes sense, as all pet owners need to help their dogs and cats find their way around the human world. Respondents reported socializing, training, and enrichment, including playing, for their animals.
Non-parents were more likely to be those who generally looked after the animal. This finding also makes sense, as parents often adopt or buy pets to help their children learn responsibility and care for others. Childless pet owners invest time, money, and emotional energy directly into their pets.
Non-parents reported higher general attachment to their animals. They viewed their pets more often than individuals. Non-parents were also more likely to use family terms such as “parent”, “child”, “children” and “guardian” when referring to their relationship with their pet.
It is this difference, combined with the evidence from my previous research, that these individuals address the species-specific needs of the dogs and cats in their care that suggests that pet training is truly pet training. Even if the details may look very different – attending training courses instead of school events or offering smell walks for dogs instead of coloring books for children – both practices fulfill the same advanced function. Whether children or pets, people fulfill the same growing need to care for, teach and love another feeling.
My colleagues and I continue to collect data around the world on how people live with animals. For now, this study provides evidence that humans may have been designed to nourish more as parents. As a result, who and when we are parents is much more flexible than you might initially think.
[Get our best science, health and technology stories. Sign up for The Conversation’s science newsletter.]
Shelly Volsche, Clinical Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Boise State University
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.