I try to keep the tone of this website positive and affirmative, and save the complaining for the company of friends. Today, however, I feel strongly compelled to respond to an open letter from a mom who is “fed up with dog owners calling themselves parents.”
So, dear hardworking mother of a human baby and self-professed animal lover, this is what I have to say.
I am old enough to have raised my eyebrows when I first heard terms like “furbaby” and “dogmom.” Such sentiments, however, are no longer exclusive to obsessive pet owners (I’ll admit “pet parent” doesn’t yet roll off my tongue that easily). The status of pets in American family life has been rising steadily over the past few decades, and now it is quite common to regard animal members of the family as children.
As young people delay parenthood for careers, or decide not to have children at all, pets can offer companionship, love, and comfort. Pets are now present in two thirds of American homes, and a 2013 Packaged Facts Survey found that 83% of pet owners consider them a member of the family, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the response to your rallying cry for commenters to voice their support for your position was overwhelmingly negative. I’m afraid, Easily Offended Mom, that furbabies are actually a thing.
In a decade and a half of serving my community as a veterinarian, a college educator, and a volunteer with local humane organizations, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the power and beauty of the human-animal bond in many forms, touching all walks of life. In sprawling hilltop estates, humble one-room cottages, high rise apartments, and mundane suburban homes, I have seen the love of a pet sustain professionals, office workers, homeless people, waitresses, young children, elderly grandmas, and the terminally ill.
For many, pets remain the only constant in a life plagued by chaos, loss, and change. Sometimes, they are the last living, breathing connection to a lost love one. They don’t judge or give unsolicited advice. Even when we humans are at our absolute worst, we can count on their unwavering commitment and support. No wonder when their all-too-short lives reach the inevitable end, their human companions are often left devastated and grieving.
It’s a relationship very different, indeed, than raising a child, a relationship that can be deeply meaningful, humbling, and uplifting. It is not always a cakewalk. It can be challenging and heartbreaking, especially as the pet edges ever nearer the end-of-life stage.
As you were so kind, Easily Offended Mom, to provide a numbered list of points where pet ownership is different than “real parenting,” I would like to offer some gentle reminders illustrating what it can mean to share one’s life with an animal companion:
- Few would regard the fact that our pets grow old and die relatively soon as some sort of perk. That “sweet, deaf old girl,” while still a complete joy, is a much heavier burden to care for than, say, the average elementary school aged child. Children become increasingly self-sufficient, they start spending several hours a day away from home, they learn to drive, they get jobs and have their own children. And no, being a role model for your grandchildren is not more work than being responsible for a pet.
- Pets, at least the furbaby variety, are not disposable. Many families go to great lengths and make real sacrifices to ensure their pets stay with the family unit. It can be heartbreaking when external circumstances make that impossible.
- Did you really compare spaying and neutering to “preventing early grandmahood” by “fixing” your kid? I don’t even know what to say to that. Maybe it would be better if I assumed you were trying to make some kind of lame and offensive joke.
- The vast majority of pet owners do not breed their dogs to “make a mint.” Responsible breeders, in fact, are serious professionals who will tell you that it takes careful selection, planning, hard work, loving care, and responsibility. We have a special name for those who just do it for a quick and easy buck: puppy mills.
- I agree that dealing with other parents is nothing like hanging out with friends at the dog park, but it might be significantly easier if you adopted a less confrontational style when you have a point to make. (How is the parent of a toddler obligated to “deal with other parents” at all if they don’t want to?)
Easily Offended Mom, no sane person would imply that caring for a pet is as challenging as raising a child, and if someone did, well, I’m sorry you had to hear that. But being called Mother is not some kind of exclusive club to which you unilaterally decide who gets to be admitted. When people say “furbaby” or “pet parent,” it’s not a referendum on your legitimacy as a mom. In fact . . .you might want to sit down for this . . .but it isn’t about you at all. What they’re trying to say is that sharing a life and home with this loving, innocent creature is something very special, precious, and even sacred to them, something that the word “pet,” never mind “pet owner,” cannot adequately convey.
Listen, it’s totally fine if this is not how you relate to pets, even if you are in the minority. But please, don’t get a dog just because it will be a “good experience” to teach your kid some responsibility. And for the love of all that is good, if someone in your network loses a beloved pet, don’t tell them to “just get another dog.” Because if you do that, it effectively invalidates the significance of that relationship. And I think you know how that feels.