Human/Animal Bond

The Pet Parent Trap

He’s a dog and he’s loved, but he’s not my son

April 7, 2014 (published)
By Michele Gaspar, DVM, DABVP, MA

About 10 years ago, my husband and I were in Nha Trang, Vietnam, having dinner at the home of our tour guide. While he spoke fluent English, his wife – a physician – struggled with the language and we were having a difficult time explaining to her exactly what I did as a small animal veterinarian.

At the time of our visit, companion animals were only beginning to be known in that country. After nearly three decades of food scarcity and brutal economic deprivation, only recently had the Vietnamese begun to develop a middle class, have disposable income and welcome dogs and cats into their homes. There was no readily accessible word in Vietnamese that translated to “pets” as we knew and understood it.

Finally, after another round of explanation, our host’s wife’s face brightened and she said, “Now I understand! The animals in America are special friends.”

Special friends. I often remember that phrase, which I consider a very accurate and even poignant description of companion animals, whenever I maneuver through racks of frilly dresses and leather jackets for dogs at my local pet supermarket; hear colleagues and clients talk about “fur babies” and “pet parents” or a patient’s “Mom” or “Dad;” and look at the industries that have sprouted up around and capitalized upon the notion that somehow our companion animals are furry, quadrupedal sons and daughters.

I’d venture to say that in the misguided process of elevating the status of our companion animals by referring to them as children or “kids,” we have actually done our dogs, cats, ferrets, guinea pigs and all other creatures great and small, as well as ourselves, a major disservice.

How so? Perhaps by anthropomorphizing them and our relationship with those creatures who share our lives and homes, we fail to see their uniqueness and value for who and what they are. Their value lies not so much in how alike they are to us, but how different they are from us. The American writer and naturalist Harry Beston described animals as “other nations” and “not our brethren or underlings.” I’d like to think that if I can empathize with what another “nation” feels, maybe that enhances my awareness and connectedness to all of life. Admittedly, it’s a thought that I am still wrestling with a bit, but it’s resonating more and more.

And in giving our relationships with companion animals the qualities of parents and children, we also thrust them into roles that, I believe, often confuse them. As far removed as a beloved pug may be from his lupine ancestors, I believe deep in his DNA he feels most comfortable not in the role of the child or another species, but as a valued subordinate in his pack.

A few weeks ago, a client was talking to me about the terminal illness of his 10-year-old dog. He is married with two small children, and he and his wife started a small business a few years ago. Money is tight and his canine buddy has an aggressive tumor in his mouth. We were talking about all of his options, including extensive surgery, radiation and perhaps the use of a vaccine specifically designed against the tumor. That protocol with a price tag of many thousands of dollars, might give about two and one-half years of a good quality of life. A far less aggressive option was to simply use an anti-inflammatory, pain relievers and support the dog over the next few months of life. He had chosen the second option and wanted to talk with me about that choice.

There were a few moments of silence on the phone and finally he said, “You know, if you asked me five years ago what I’d do, I’d tell you that he was my kid and I’d spend whatever money it took to make him well.”

“But he’s not your kid,” I added, and we both agreed that his life circumstances, and with them, those of his dog, had changed. The dog became the companion animal in the home and the human children who came after him became the “kids.”

“You’re right. He’s a dog and he’s loved, but he’s not my son.”

I work in a neighborhood that is populated largely by young adults starting out in the world. Many are newly married and have purchased or adopted the first dog or cat they will have as adults. There’s a sweetness in seeing the gentleness in how they deal with their animal companions and I often think that the dogs and cats are “dry runs” for the children who will most likely come along in the future. The dogs and cats are preparing the way, in a sense, for the development of devotion, care and tenderness that those couples will give to their sons and daughters.

As a veterinarian, I have seen this natural development play out time and again. I have met the eager young couple with their first puppy and, much like a pediatrician, have walked them through the pup’s first vaccines, behavioral issues, daycare choices and food selections. In the reception area, I have seen them tug on boots so that Chicago’s salt-covered sidewalks wouldn’t irritate their dog’s footpads, and noted the various sweaters and coats that over the years became part of their companion’s wardrobe. The empathy and kindnesses I observed were one of the gifts I have received as a veterinarian.

However, often in the course of two or three or more years, that same couple became parents to a little human. And in that transition, there was a definite change in the way they considered the dog or cat. To be sure, they were still conscientious, but there was a shift, sometimes subtle and sometimes not so much, in how they related to the animal in the home. Some of my work at that point was in helping them continue the connection to their animal companion and assisting in their navigation of a new role for the dog or cat in the family as they themselves shifted into new ways of being. I considered that role, sometimes small and sometimes large, to be a gift as well.

I currently live with four bassets, four cats and a tankful of fish. My husband and I are childless and as much as there are days when I cannot imagine not having a home with companion animals, there also is not a day when I consider our pack of hounds and clowder of cats as our “children.” I am not their “Mom.”

Instead, I am enthralled by our bassets’ keen ability to sniff out the smallest piece of cheese that remains on the cutting board (and get it), and our cats’ knack for entering the tightest of spaces by considering the spatial task at hand and maneuvering their paws and bodies in just the right way to accomplish it. I am delighted by their innate intelligences, their beauty, and what each species, including my own, possesses that the other does not. I see these differences as qualities to be celebrated and not measures of superiority or deficiencies. Each has different gifts, if you will, that can be appreciated and even celebrated.

And I know that if the natural order of life unfolds, my animal companions, unlike human children, will, most likely, pre-decease me. Inherent in that knowledge, too, is that in my first “hello” to them is an unsaid and implied “good-bye.” That makes each day special and rich in its urgency to enjoy every minute with them.

Our rapidly advancing technology has ironically connected us on a macro level, but has increasingly isolated us as well. It is no secret that for many of those who live alone, companion dogs and cats are often the only ones who welcome them after a busy day at work or keep them company throughout the day. Those human-companion animal bonds are important and, especially for senior citizens, can provide a connectedness that preserves physical and mental health and makes the day worth living. In a more perfect world and one that is less plugged in, perhaps those people would not be alone and their animal companions would be part of a larger support group, including extended family and friends.

Make no mistake: I do not consider companion animals to be “just” a dog or cat or any other creature. To the contrary, I consider and celebrate every Fluffy and Jake and Dinah and Annie and Max and Wrigley for who they are. They are not sons or daughters or any other way we humans have for describing our relationships with one another. They are, as our Vietnamese friend said years ago, rather “special friends,” worthy of care and concern and love and devotion. When you come right down to it, that is quite a lot.


Jeanette Cole
September 12, 2019

well put!

Drew Doverspike, DVM, CVPP 
April 19, 2014

So by keeping them as property per the law, the vet and the consumer benefit...INSTEAD of opening the flood gates for lawsuits (civil,etc)  for lawyers to get even richer (who by the way, have been calling this an untapped resource in law schools for the past 5 years now). So the lawyers would get rich, vets would have to charge a lot more than we already do, and this would be passed on the the client.  And don't forget that lawsuits take at least 2-5 years to have resolution. In the case of a pet death, a lawsuit that drags on will only perpetuate the client's grieving process to that of 2-5 years. If this ever changes, I would sell my practice immediately, so I wound NOT loose what little personal assets I have managed to save.  Remember, only the lawyers would benefit so this is the only way to prevent this from a legal  standpoint. Who cares what the law considers them anyway, as there are still animal cruelty laws that protect them from abuse (ie, they have rights and cars do NOT).Hope this was of help :)Drew Doverspike, DVM, CVPP

Elisa Dowd 
April 8, 2014

I sometimes have clients feel guilty when their baby takes away some of the attention from their dog. I let them know that it will balance out again when their adult offspring return home to comment that the new puppy is way more spoiled than the dogs were when the kids were still at home.

April 8, 2014

People love a lot of things in life, but a the pet can return that love. Can an  automobile love you back? Sadly there are people who take better care of their automobiles than they do of their cats or dogs. And there are veterinarians who would use an analogy likening.  a dog to an automobile. Not everyone who has a pet is a pet parent.  Any more than every woman who bears a child is a fit mother.  The relationship of a devoted human being with their dog or cat is no  different than a human who adopts an unknown child and grows to love   that child as their own.
A human" special friend" can dump you on a moment's notice. However, A cat or dog  who loves you will  be devoted to you for the rest of their life.

April 8, 2014

I have yet to see a cat or dog who minds being pampered. And I have yet to see a cat or dog who can take care of themselves. They cannot medicate themselves if they need medication, if they stay outside and hunt their food they live a much shorter life. Are they human beings? No, but that does not make them less deserving of the love and care that is showered upon them by their human moms and dads.  Neither does it make it fair that they are considered property under the law. I would like to think that our society has evolved further than that, but evidently you do not agree, nor do you wish to see it happen. Not that long ago, slaves were considered property as well. In fact they still are in some parts of the world. Does that make it right?. In your attempt to understand other "nations", are you so blind that you cannot see that there are things that are right and there are things that are wrong?  The moral relativism that allows pets in the United States to remain as property is just plain wrong.  As a veterinarian, you said yourself that there are people who do indeed treat their  pets as though they were their children. Just because your opinion differs, does that make their opinion wrong?  What possible advantage can a pet have by remaining a piece of property under the law? You say that you celebrate the differences between their species and our own. Perhaps it has escaped you that human beings, indeed, possess some traits that are less admirable than our four-legged "special friends". And what constitutes a mother? Does a mother care for her offspring? Does she provide food and medical care? Does she love her offspring and does she demonstrate that love in the way that she treats that offspring? Whether you like it or not, our pets are perpetual children. Unlike a human child, who grows up and leaves the nest, our pets look to us for care  their entire lives. And in return, they give us the most pure, loyal, guileless kind of love that exists on this planet. They deserve better than to have the same legal standing as a piece of paper, an automobile, or any other inanimate object. I am sorry for you and most of your profession that you cannot see that. Or more accurately that you choose not to.

David Gill 
April 8, 2014

Wonderful, thoughtful post, I thank Dr. Gaspar. I think that we have so domesticated some species as to make them something clearly less than “other nations” and more like vassal states, having taken away their sovereignty (overstretching the metaphor, I know). Also, the tone of the post sounds anthropocentric, using terms such as “elevating” pets and speaking of their “value”.  This perhaps harkens to a view that humans somehow are a pinnacle of evolutionary development or that humans are somehow favored by some mystical attributes such as a soul and a heavenly overseer. Those views would seem to me to be merely the flipside of the very attitudes so clearly demonstrated as erroneous in the author's very astute observations.

Kenneth Newman 
April 8, 2014

One veterinarian's opinion. They may not be children to you, but your belief about the role of pets is no more valid than that of someone who treasures them as children. Do you believe that they are legally property without a legal intrinsic value like the majority of your colleagues who promote the human animal bond, and veterinary life insurance, to encourage people to spend ever increasing sums for care, while fighting to preserve that they are only property when they kill a pet? All of the benefits without responsibility.


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