Pets as people I

Picture1 Does your pet have human-like personality traits?
Yes………………………………………………94%
No…………………………………………………6%

How likely are you to risk your own life for your pet?
Very likely……………………………………….56%
Somewhat likely………………………………..37%
Not at all likely…………………………………..7%

If you were deserted on an island and could have only one companion, which would you pick?
Human……………………………………………47%
Dog……………………………………………….40%
Cat………………………………………………..10%

Does you pet enjoy watching television?
Yes………………………………………………..36%
No………………………………………………….64%

Who listens to you best? 
Pet…………………………………………………45%
Spouse……………………………………. ……..30%
Friend……………………………………………..11%
Family member…………………………………11%

Do you spend more on your pet now than you did three years ago.
Yes, I spend more……………………………….53%
No, I spend less……………………………………5%
No, I spend the same…………………………..22%
I did not have my pet three years ago…….14%

How often do you think of your pet while you are away during the day?
All the time……………………………………….21%
Every hour…………………………………………7%
A few times per day……………………………..54%

Clearly, something is happening to the American pet.  They are moving ever closer to the hearth.  In the 18th century, animals earned their keep. Dogs protected humans and herded cattle.  Cats kept the barn clear of mice.  These animals might have been thought of fondly, but they existed to serve a purpose.  If they got sick, well, they got sick. There were always more cats where those cats come from.  These animals may or may not have been named.  If they were, in most cases, they had species-specific names (Duke, Rover, Fluffy, Boots) and not "Christian" names.  Cats and dogs may or may not have been allowed in the house. Chances are they were not allowed to sleep there. 

Now, these animals are "part of the family."  They have wormed their way to the very center of things.  They have taken on human qualities and human interests.  They have human names.  They serve as "good listeners." Americans believe their pets "know how I’m feeling."  Pets supply companionship and emotional support…even on a desert island.  They’re still working animals, I guess. They just work at new things.

And for this new status, they are showered with new considerations.  People will put themselves in harm’s way to protect a pet.  They bring them gifts when returning home from a holiday, and give them gifts at Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah.  Pets get a very high standard of nutrition and health care.  Funeral arrangements are ever more elaborate and expensive.  And of course, now, pets get decent human names.  No more "Fluffy."

Paul Mitchell, Omaha Steaks, Origins, Harley Davidson and Old Navy offers lines of pet products ranging from dog shampoo, pet attire, and name-brand toys to gourmet treats and food. Hotels are now pet friendly suppling oversized pet pillows, plush doggie robes, check-in gift packages: pet toy, dog treat, ID tag, bone and turn down treats.  At the far end, owners may now buy faux mink coats for cold weather outings, feathered French day beds for afternoon naps, designer bird cages, botanical fragrances and to top it all off, a rhinestone tiara!  The majority of pet owner buy gifts for the pets, spending on average $20 to do so. 

Last year, Americans spent $36 billion on their pets.  This year they will spend $38 billion.  Tell that to an 18th century farmer. 

The veterinary industry that benefits so massively from our "spare no expense" approach to pet care can see where this is all heading: the recalculation of the value of the pet, and the possibility of new lawsuits and new penalties. 

The American Animal Hospital Association recognizes and supports the legal concept of animals as property. However, AAHA recognizes that some animals have value to their owners that may exceed the animal’s market value. In determining the real monetary value of the animal, AAHA believes the purchase price, age and health of the animal, breeding status, pedigree, special training, veterinary expenses for the care of the animal’s injury or sickness related to the incident in question, and any particular economic utility the animal has to the owner should be considered. Any extension of available remedies beyond economic damages would be inappropriate and would ultimately jeopardize efficient and cost-effective health care delivery to animals. Therefore AAHA opposes the potential recovery of non-economic damages.

In other words, the association that supports the research reported here is careful to repudiate the findings in the fine print.  We may think of Rover or Fluffy as a member of the family.  The AAHA insists that his or her value be assessed by "purchase price… breeding status…and any particular economic utility."  Anything "beyond economic damages would be inappropriate…"  I believe this is another way of saying, "yes, we are happy to capture the new revenue opportunities and profit margins that come from the value you attach to your pet, but, no, you can’t sue us for this value."  At the intersection of anthropology and economics, we call this having your cake and eating it too.

But never mind.  What are we to make of the shift status of the animals in our midst?  There are some technical reason why pets serve so well as companions. They are good to touch and hold.  We believe them to be nonjudgmental.  In a technocratic society, we are subject to constant review.  Rex seems to love us just the way we are.  Pets are trusting and we are touched that this too appears to come unconditionally. They are always pleased to see us (dogs more than cats, perhaps).  They are often unpredictable and amusing.  They are easy to dote upon. 

Do they listen well? Do they appreciate the gifts we give them?  Do they care whether they are named Rex or Morgan?  Do they care that they are named at all?  Do they enjoy television?  Do we need to spend $38 billion a year on them.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  And no.  Do they have personalities? Well, kinda, sorta, not really.  All of this is an act of cultural attribution that would be a symptom of psychiatric difficulty if it were not the case that we all do it. 

Here’s how I think it works.  It’s a bargain, really.  As much as possible, my cat Molly (above, as kitten, with mouse) treats me as if I were another cat.  Often, I do things (showers, for instance) that are completely mystifying to her (she has to remark me), but generally speaking I am sufficiently "cat approximate" that it is possible for her to fashion a relationship she likes.  I return the favor.  As much as possible, I treat Molly as if she were a human. Much of what she does is not "human approximate."  Some of it’s downright mystifying.  But there is enough in her that I can recast as human to make the relationship work and work well.  (I don’t actually believe she’s a "good listener" but long ago I came to appreciate that she is a pretty good talker, gifted with a real command of English, and in operatic moments a language that is probably Italian.  I don’t know any, so I can’t be sure.)

Now, the big question is, why bother? I mean, we actually have creatures in our lives that are certifiably human.  (Please hold all jokes to the completion of this post.)  Why turn pets into humans?

[I will finish this post tomorrow.]

References

APPMA National Pet Owners Survey here

Noneconomic disclosure from the AAHANET here

AAHANET 2004 Pet Owner Survey here.   
[This is the source for the data with which the post opens. The sample for this study was well
distributed by age (though people over 55 were unrepresented.)  Women were over represented (80%).  Families with children under 18 were underrepresented.]

McCracken, Grant.  2004.  Pets are people.  The Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  June 13, 2004. here.

McCracken, Grant. 2004.  Adorable or what?  The Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  June 12, 2004. here.

McCracken, Grant. 2004.  Ordinary language philosophy and your dog.  The Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  June 14, 2004.  here.

Nash, Holly.  n.d.  Pet Therapy: Animals as Co-therapists. here

5 thoughts on “Pets as people I”

  1. Hi Grant–Thought you’d like this quote:

    “For me you’re only a little boy just like 100,000 other little boys. For you, I’m only a fox like 100,000 other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. ”

    – Antoine St. Exupery, The Little Prince

  2. debbie, this beautiful quote does not count – i am afraid you are speaking from within the symptom…
    grant, you are doing good in calling it an american phenomenon – although reports say that it is spreading over china fast. – regarding animals as ‘pets’ – to a german – seems odd at the best and probably even infantile, or perverse.
    living with my american wife i now at least can say that i am a happy pervert, sharing every inch of our house with two big dogs (keeping our two ‘boys’ outside was simply not debatable).

    to a german a dog has its place (which is outside, or on the floor).
    to an american a dog has its place too. it is turned from an animal into a sweet little pet.
    to americans it is quite normal to have the fury friends operated on their sexual organs. in europe this is mostly done as last resort.

    the roots of these differences are running deep. from my perspective the american pet-mania is not too far away from ‘disneyland’ or from the typical american tourist’s delight in florence “oh look, it is david again! … how sweet!”


    the american love for cute. – not too far away from asia at all.

  3. As a non-pet person, I find the pet people mystifying. It isn’t just the disgusting waste they spread all over sidewalks and greenswards in an urban environment, endangering one’s shoes and appetite. It isn’t just their batty anthropomorphism. It isn’t just their desire for an indulgent-master/furry-slave relationship. It’s their belief that these things are perfectly natural.

    I guess that is one aspect of culture–taken-for-granted assumptions that one never questions. But it’s odd that the pet people and the non-pet people can otherwise live in the same consensus culture and seem so incomprehensible to one another.

  4. The animals humans generally favour as pets are those that are adaptable. Being adaptable means they can fit in with us if it suits them. Generally it does. They get easy food, somewhere to sleep, protection etc etc. Cats and Dogs are favourite for this because they are social animals and so naturally know how to fit in with their pack. They don’t see themselves as human but they frequently know what pleases us. This is good for them because it brings rewards so they try and please us more. By doing this they appear to act almost human when really all they are doing is making the most of their situation. It’s a two way thing, we get their affection and companionship and they get love, security and food in return. Despite all this, they definitely do have personalities. Even animals living in the wild have distinct personalities. Any animal that can think for itself will develop one.

Comments are closed.