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Parenting Our Pets

by Kathryn Boughton

Motherhood. No one walking this earth can avoid having—or having had—a mother. And whether you like Hallmark holidays or not, there is an undeniable bond between mother and child, one that extends past human beings to the animal world.

Have you ever watched the tenderness that a mother elephant displays to her calf? Or watched the ferocity of a lioness protecting her young from predators? Even alligators, not known for being warm and fuzzy, answer the call of motherhood, carrying their babies in their mouths to protect them from predators (hope they don’t involuntarily swallow!).

It is impossible to know whether parenting is easier for other species. Do baby lions go through adolescent rebellion making their mothers’ want to sit down and roar? Do young owls give a hoot about their parents’ teachings? Does a mother octopus ever wish she had followed her dream career rather than hanging around her nest for four-and-a-half years waiting for some eggs to hatch?

Whatever the answer may be, more and more Millennials are turning to non-human species to satisfy their need to nurture, according to recent polls by the marketing firms, Kelton Research and Mintel.

The polls found that many millennials delay buying homes, marrying and having children. They even eschew getting licenses. But they are not going to go without families.

Seventy-five percent of millennials own a dog and fifty-one percent a cat. Fifty-eight percent of pet owners are comfortable referring to themselves as their pets’ “mommy” or “daddy” and a lesser number, thirty-five percent, will call their pet a “son” or “daughter.” A full ten percent admit having shared Mother’s Day or Father’s Day with their dog.

Some pet owners make less obvious references to a familial relationship, but ninety percent of pet owners consider pets to be part of their family and more than eighty percent say they would risk life and limb for them.

While such attachments are growing at a rapid rate in modern America, they are not new. Consider Frederick the Great, the childless last King of Prussia, who so loved his greyhounds that he asked to buried among them. When he lost a favored pet, Biche, he wrote his sister, “I was ashamed that a dog could so deeply affect my soul; but ... the faithfulness of this poor creature had so strongly attached me to her, her suffering so moved me, that, I confess, I am sad and afflicted.”

Even pet owners who have children are apt to include the dog or cat in the family photo, the surveys revealed. Pet owners blur the lines between children and pets in many ways. Some eighty-one percent of those surveyed considered their dogs to be family members, equal in status to children. More than half of Americans now consider themselves to be "pet parents" rather than "pet owners."

With this kind of empathy between species, can there be any mystery concerning the growing market for pet accessories, pet foods, pet toys, pet houses (although most of us cannot match Frederick who had one wing of his palace built just for his greyhounds), strollers, custom beds and the like. In 2016, Americans spent more than $63 billion on their pets—some $11 billion just on items to pamper the pet or transform it into a surrogate child.

The Millennials are leading this trend, too. Seventy-six percent of them said they would be likely to splurge on a pet, compared to only 50 percent of Baby Boomers.

Millennials were also twice as likely as Baby Boomers to buy clothing for their pets, a trend most pets would certainly prefer to avoid.

Some “pet parents” may even spend more time talking to their charges than to children. With the pressures of modern life and the distractions of electronic gadgets, a 2013 survey found family interactions among humans absorbed only 36 minutes on weekdays—much of which was passed in silence while the family watched television.

By contrast, seventy-seven percent of pet owners admitted to talking to their pets as if they were human. Other research showed that pet owners used language and cadences much the same as used for children.

Seventy-four percent of pet parents said they like to share at least one meal with their dogs each day, with three quarters of them choosing dinner, the traditional time for families and children to spend time together.

When doting pet owners are not talking to their furry family members, it appears they are spending their precious 36 minutes a day talking about them. According to this survey, dogs tend to occupy a large portion of couple’s conversations, topping politics, friends, jobs and even sex as the favored topic.

So remember—not all “children” look alike, but their “parents’” feelings are just as real. We extend our best wishes for a happy Mother’s Day to Poochie and Puss’ moms, to Iggy the Iguana’s, Felicity Ferret’s, Polly Parrot’s and the families of all the many other creatures who make our homes warm and welcoming places.