Breakpoint: Pets aren’t children: Placing the appropriate value on the animals we love

Staff file photo by Olivia Ross / Often pets are seen as members of the family and treated accordingly, as evidenced by a pet economy that exceeded $136 billion in 2022 and is only expected to grow.
Staff file photo by Olivia Ross / Often pets are seen as members of the family and treated accordingly, as evidenced by a pet economy that exceeded $136 billion in 2022 and is only expected to grow.

Imagine a friend told you that her baby is sick and may die. You'd feel shock and grief and likely ask how you could help. You'd commit to pray for her child and the family.

Would anything change if the friend then replied, "Thank you, we're hoping Fluffy pulls through"? According to many, it shouldn't. As fertility hovers around an all-time low and pet ownership at an all-time high, more Americans are not only talking about but treating furry companions like children.

Recently in her article in The Atlantic titled "Pets Really Can Be Like Human Family," Katherine Wu argued that "calling some pet owners the 'parents' of their dogs or cats might be the best shorthand for these relationships." Wu described the growing pet economy of products and services that mirror those once intended for children. More Americans than ever are buying their animals "home-cooked foods ... strollers ... memory-foam mattresses ... their own clothing lines." They're also paying for wellness centers, doggy day cares, "acupuncture, surgeries, chemotherapy, even organ transplants." In 2022, the pet economy totaled over $136 billion and, by most indications, is only likely to grow.

According to a survey by Pew Research that was quoted in the article, the majority of America's 200 million pet owners described their animals as "family," and more than half said their pet is "as much a part of their family as a human member." This means, Wu thinks, that it is not only time to normalize talk of pets as children, but also to offer owners the same benefits as parents. For example, she argued, employers should offer paid time off to new pet parents and pet insurance in employee benefit packages, and rental properties should have fewer pet restrictions.

In short, according to Wu, pet owners deserve "the same support systems that help people care for any loved ones." After all, she continued, "Psychologically, scientifically ... [t]he bonds humans forge with animals can feel as strong as the ones we make with each other — even those with family, even with our kids."

And there it is. Wu's argument is built on the widespread but largely unconscious assumption that whatever we feel is what is true, especially if those feelings are strong. That assumption, however, is wrong.

What is true, of course, is that pets are a blessing. They can be wonderful companions and make life richer in many ways. Losing a beloved pet is incredibly hard, as C.S. Lewis warned in "The Four Loves." If you want a life free from grief, he wrote, "you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal."

It's also true, crucially so, that pets aren't people. Animals are not created in the image of God and do not share the value and dignity of humans. Officially, at least if the full significance of human beings is considered, they are only family members in a metaphorical sense.

It was Christians like William Wilberforce who elevated the treatment of animals. However, the current trend of treating animals as offspring is shaped more by the devaluing of humans, especially children, than by the proper valuing of animals. Another, more serious symptom of this cultural sickness is the low birth rate across the Western world, a phenomenon inseparable from the similarly low marriage rates. As a result, millions who want to be mothers and fathers are left without children to nurture. The pet experience offers a vaguely parental feeling without the life-changing and far more difficult responsibility of raising a human being.

This is a shift from generations past when feelings were understood to either reflect reality or not. Today, we have a tendency, not to mention the technologies and affluence, to judge reality by our feelings. An unprecedented number of Americans now treat animals like image bearers, not because it's true but because it feels true.

While it's easy to mock things like "pawternity leave," fur babies aren't the real issue. They're just a sign of a culture full of people who are, as author Thaddeus Williams suggests, committed to "following their hearts." According to Scripture, our hearts, unless they are made new in Christ, lead us away from reality. If we follow, the result is dehumanizing.

On a positive note, the Pew survey Wu noted in her article also found that most respondents who call their animals "family" think "there is already enough emphasis on pets' well-being in this country, even too much." Perhaps then, some of this talk about animals as children is not serious. I'd like to think that most people, if faced with saving either a dog or a daughter from a burning building, would make the right choice.

Still, unless we get a leash on our collective worship of feelings and the illusion that reality can be bent around them, parenting pets won't be the most absurd thing we see.

From Breakpoint, Feb. 6, 2024; reprinted by permission of the Colson Center, breakpoint.org.

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