More Than a Family Member

Few, if any, pet owners experience much surprise when they hear about studies or surveys that conclude that many of us view our animal as members of the family. However it turns out that all pet owners don’t agree on what it means to treat a pet like a member of the family. Once again this creates  a good news/bad news situation for our pets.

And the Good News is…

The good news about pets as family members takes two forms:

  1. People who relate to their pets as family members pay more attention to them. Rather than keeping Nemo chained to a doghouse in the backyard, the Greens share their home with him. Because of this, they immediately notice when he throws up, doesn’t eat his dinner, or even just acts a little out of sorts. “What’s the matter with Nemo?” asks 7-year-old Billy Green. “He doesn’t want to play hide-and-seek with me today.” His mother agrees that something definitely must be bothering the dog because he loves the game as much as his human playmate, and she makes an appointment for a veterinary exam. Owners who don’t share such intimate relationships with their pets can easily miss these sometimes subtle early signs of problems.
  2. Both human and animal have more opportunities to experience the positive physiological and effects of the human-animal bond. We all know about the benefits animal companionship offers humans in the form of improved health and mental well-being. Other studies indicate that quality human interaction yields similar benefits for our pets. To appreciate the power of this often taken-for-granted aspect of pet ownership, pause here and perform the following mental experiment:

Close your eyes and imagine sitting or lying in a favorite place with your pet beside you. Now imagine yourself stroking your pet. Feel the softness of fur and how your pet’s chest rises and falls more slowly and rhythmically beneath your hand as the animal relaxes. Hear your pet sigh or begin to purr in utter contentment. Feel your own mind and body begin to drift to a quieter place too.

Of course nothing beats relaxing with our real pets, but most people find that even the image of such an interaction makes them feel much better. In fact, thoughts of these and other interactions with the family pet help more than a few working owners make it through the day. And the way our pets greet us when we return leaves no doubt that they look forward to interacting with us, too.

And the Bad News?

The bad news side of pets-as-family members is the good news minus a knowledge of and respect for each pet’s unique species and individual physical, behavioral, and bond needs. Let’s compare what goes on in the Greens’ household to what goes on in Marcia Brown’s home next door. Both Nemo and Marcia’ dog, Binky, eat dinner when their owners do. However Nemo gets a well-balanced diet formulated to meet his canine needs while Binky gets fed from Marcia’s plate because “My little boy eats everything I do.” After dinner the Greens take Nemo for a long walk then play fetch with him in the back yard while Binky and Marcia vege out in front of the television. “I hate exercise,” explains Marcia, giving her dog one potato chip for every one she eats herself, “and I’m sure Binky does too.” When bedtime arrives Nemo automatically curls up on his fuzzy rug on the floor beside Billy’s bed while Binky sleeps in the bed with Marcia. “I don’t particularly like it because he growls if I disturb him,” Marcia admits. “But what else can I do? I can’t expect my baby to sleep on the floor!”

The Brown’s knowledge-based approach to Nemo as a beloved family member with unique needs results in a healthy, well-behaved dog whom everyone adores. Marcia’s choice to treat Binky as a furry humanoid instead of a dog leads to multiple problems. His diet results in periodic bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. In addition to the discomfort this causes Binky, he must endure numerous trips to the veterinary hospital, work-ups, and medication. Each visit ends with the veterinarian recommending that Marcia make the necessary dietary changes to spare her dog these and perhaps more serious problems in the future. Even though Marcia promises to try, the thought of her baby eating that “yucky dog food” proves too strong for her to resist. Add Binky’s lack of exercise to his unhealthy diet and he becomes a good candidate for obesity and the many medical problems related to it. Finally, Marcia’s willingness to give in to her pet’s every whim rather than relate to him in a manner that fulfills his needs for a knowledgeable human leader in their human-canine group results in a dog with behavioral problems in addition to everything else.

And what effect does Marcia’s view of her pet as a human rather than canine family member have on the human-animal bond? Unlike healthy well-behaved lovable Nemo, Binky’s many physical and behavioral problems result in a dog only his owner loves. Granted Marcia might feel a rush of pride when she boasts, “Binky would die without me!” But what about Binky? Even though the veterinary staff tries to do their best, Marcia’s refusal to make the necessary dietary changes to spare her pet problems frustrates them. His unruly behavior in the clinic undermines their positive feelings about him even more. And although Billy Green would like to take Nemo next door to play with Binky or play with Binky himself, his mother won’t let him because, “I just don’t trust that dog. Besides, he’s always sick and I don’t want Nemo to catch anything.”

Meanwhile Marcia finds it harder and harder to find a kennel or a friend who will take care of her pet who goes to pieces in her absence. She tells herself he does this because “He loves me so much he can’t bear to be without me!” But as she spends more and more time alone because of Binky’s behavior while her friends go off to enjoy themselves, she finds herself as apt to snap at him as hug him, confusing the dog and further undermining their relationship. All this because she chose to treat him like her baby instead of her dog!

Developing Appropriate Human-Animal Family Values

From this we can see that viewing an animal as a member of the family can mean different things to different people and even different people in the same household. So how can we make sure that how we relate to our animals reflects their needs as well as our own? One easy way involves learning as much as we can about your particular pet’s species (as well as breed, if appropriate). Cats most certainly pose different challenges than dogs, and the physical, behavioral, and bond needs of both  differ from those of birds, reptiles, or amphibians. But thanks to public libraries and the Internet, even those living in the remote areas can gather a great deal of information about even the most unusual pets. Many libraries also have or can get you videos on a wide range of species, too. Like anything else some resources provide higher quality information than others, so make sure you examine more than one. Over time you’ll get a feeling for which recommendations about your particular pet’s physical, behavioral, and bond needs arise from good science and solid experience versus from fads proposed by fleeting gurus of one sort or another.

Above all, make your fact-finding fun. Involving any household snacksters or couch potatoes who like to treat the animal the same way they treat themselves in an upbeat quest for information about your pet’s unique needs will yield more positive results than nagging them. Instead of collecting data then insisting your spouse or parent stop treating your cat like a furry humanoid because “It’s a mean and cruel thing to do!”, casually share your findings about certain feline needs in a neutral manner: “I had no idea that Tuffy’s a carnivore which means she has different nutritional needs from dogs or humans. Now I think I really need to be more careful about what I feed her. I love her so much, it seems only natural to give her some of my ice cream so it will be awfully hard not to, but I’m willing to try. What do you think?”

No doubt exists that the combined effects of domestication and a spiritual or emotional connection we have yet to comprehend makes most people realize that their animals play a very special role in their lives. The human half of the bargain is to grant the animals the intimate family member status they deserve without neglecting their unique species and individual needs.