Pets are people

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There are 65 million dogs in the US and 77 million cats. 

Seventy-six million households own a pet (roughly 3 in 4). 

We will spend $34 billion on pets in 2004 (up from $17 billion in 1994): $1.6 b. on the pets themselves, $14 b. for food, and $8 b. for veterinarian care.

There are some interesting patterns in these numbers:

There are slightly more male dogs than female dogs and slightly more female cats than male cats.  This suggests that we honor the cultural notion that dogs are "male"” and cats as "female.”"  What happens to the animals that do not fit this gender profiling?  You don’t want to know. 

Some owners of Vietnamese Pot-bellied pigs found their new pets too aggressive, and they did something surprising.  They took them to a slaughter house.  Then they did something really surprising.

In some cases, the owners took the meat from their pigs home, which certainly goes against our traditional thinking about what we do with our pets.”

Indeed, pets are animals of a special kind.  They have special rights and privileges.  Generally speaking, we don’’t slaughter them, and, specifically speaking, we don’’t eat them. 

Why not?  Animals are animals, and protein is protein, right? 

Hah, pets are not animals.  Let’’s be clear on that. Fifteen percent of Americans travel with their pets each year, apparently.  Why?  "More and more people consider their pets as members of the family.”"

Surely this is just a metaphor.  We don’’t really suppose that this animal, obtained from a pound, incapable of speech, inclined to acts of stupidity, is really somehow "related”" to us, do we? Well, yes, actually, we do:

According to a American Animal Hospital Association survey (1997), more than 60 percent of cat and dog owners include news about their pets in their holiday greetings, 27 percent take their pets along for family photographs and pictures with Santa, and 79 percent give their pets holiday or birthday presents.

We give them presents?  Birthday presents?  To an animal that does not know what day it is, and has a tough time the wrapping paper?

I have a suggestion: we are conferring something like personhood on our pets.  We are turning these animals into social creatures with special rights and privileges.  They have the right, most of them, to live in doors, to eat better than many people in the third world, to receive excellent health care, and we promise not to eat them when they die.  (There is a flourishing trade in pet cemeteries, and surely this is a good measure of their extra-animal status.  We see them off to a better place.)   

Those who fail these conditions are seen to be not merely callous.  They are seen to be morally culpable.  We are inclined to say things like, "There is something really wrong with those people.  They left their dog out all night.  Again!”"  This is a moral judgment of what we take to be a moral failing.  Why?  Because pets aren’’t animals.  They are something more.

But these are just the minor conditions of personhood.  We go a lot further.  We believe pets have special tastes and preferences, we agonize over their cuisine, we wonder if they are feeling a little "off”" today, and whether they want the blue or the red lined basket.  In the new regime, animals have a cultivated palate, a rich emotional life, and aesthetic preferences. 

There is still more.  Apparently, "89 percent of pet owners believe that their pet understands all or some of what they say."”  In this case, we are conferring a higher sentience upon them.  We are supposing that they are capable of speech.  We believe that we are talking to them and that they are talking to us. 

In a famous passage, Clifford Geertz had this to say about personhood:

The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background, is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.

We have taken our peculiar idea of the person and conferred it on our pets.  This is an exceedingly odd and interesting transformational exercise.  After all, these animals are, by human standards, deeply stupid.  When we treat them as persons, we engage in an astonishing act of metamorphosis.  But implausibility does not discourage us.  We are a nation of individuals and we have decided that our pets are going to be individuals, too.


Geertz, Clifford. 1974-1984. "From the native’s point of view" On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding.  Culture theory: essays on mind, self, and emotion. editors Robert Alan LeVine, and Richard A Shweder, 123-36.  New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 126.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1976.  Culture and Practical Reason.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Data on pets:

13 thoughts on “Pets are people

  1. Steve Portigal

    In Errol Morris’s excellent documentary “Mr. Death” he uses an archival scene of Westinghouse’s electrocution of an elephant to great effect. The film deals with many issues, including “humane” capital punishment and Holocaust denial. The sight of the elephant dying is upsetting, and of course, our reaction is an element in the story that Morris has us go through in the watching of the film – the gasp over the death of an animal in contrast to the tolerance of human suffering is a contradiction of modern life, and Morris never tells us why he is showing it to us, but by the end of the film you begin to have some very small understanding of how the Holocaust could have happened.

    (I’m only pointing to it, rather than fully explaining it because, well, it’s been a few years since I’ve seen the film, and ya know….I just remember it was a powerful piece in a powerful doc)

  2. steve

    Geertz can’t possibly be right that only Westerners anthropomorphize animals. Didn’t American Indians personify all kinds of supernatural animal creatures? Don’t most cultures anthropomorphize things that are even less intelligent than pets, like the moon or the sun? This strikes me as an example of hypertrophic cultural relativism.

  3. Grant

    Steve, Geertz’s comment is about how we define the person, not animals. And you are right, lots of other cultures endow animals with a variety of non-animal properties. What’s maybe striking about our culture is that our animals are not endowed with our collective cultural meanings, but with highly individuated, individualizing ones. Other cultures make them Gods. We make them companions. But then that’s us, isn’t it? Thanks, Grant

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  9. A Key

    Female cats are preferred because they are friendlier and less predatorial not because of a concept that cats are female. I don’t know why male dogs are preferred; perhaps, they are more protective. Also, marketing is changing to accommodate pet owners, including the sale of homes with pet showers, just as an example.

  10. nick gogerty

    the tendancy to anthropomorphize isn’t just limited to animals. A surprising number of Roomba robotic vacum cleaners name them as well. We are social animals, to such a degree we extend the “society” to pretty much anything…

  11. Robin

    My dog definitely knows what certain words mean, such as “bacon,” “cheese,” “out,” “off,” or, “find [insert family member name or pet name here],” and she’ll communicate to me certain things, such as that she wants me to turn on the faucet for a drink, or she wants / needs to go out. It’s not English or ASL, but it is conversational to some limited extent. I don’t confuse her nor my cats as being human, but I provide for them what I believe I should as their adoptive parent. (Yes, I shoo bugs and spiders out of my home instead of crunching them, and don’t eat flesh foods.) Some DO treat their animals way overboard, and to the disregard of other humans. I believe God wishes us to care for all, and wish none would ever be tortured, starved, or homeless. Interesting about the elephant video which I’m too squemish to watch.

  12. Susan Kuchinskas

    As we learn more about the human attachment system — that is, the brain activity and neurochemicals involved in forming relationships including love and trust — it seems that it’s not so much that we are conferring personhood on animals. Rather, our bonds with animals are no different than our bonds with other humans. Bonds with both are likely the result of a release of oxytocin into the parts of the brain that handle social relationships.

    Moreover, dogs — and very likely, most other pet mammals — may experience an almost identical oxytocin release in the social areas of their brains, which are not very different from ours.


    Neurophysiological correlates of affiliative behaviour between humans and dogs.


    Dog’s Gaze at Owner Increases Urinary Oxytocin During Social Interaction

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