PedroPedroMany people consider their pet to be a full member of their family.  And
lots of folks believe their pet is part of the family, even though they
may not consider it to be a full-fledged member.  Read on and then
answer a few questions based on the results of a couple of studies
designed to show how much we consider pets to be part of the family. 

We start to show our pets that they fit in to the family from the very day they first come into our lives ... and our homes ... by giving them a human name.  Ol' Blue and Poochy are passe.  George and Lilly are in.  Then we buy them presents.  We go in the car; they go in the car with us.  Some of us buy them clothes.

Now there's nothing wrong with dressing up your dog to go outside.  If you think Pedro looks cute in a sombrero and poncho, put them on him.  But if he tries to remove part of your finger while you tie the sombrero on his little head, it may mean that he hates that hat.  Or maybe he just doesn't like the whole idea of having to get dressed to go out and do his business.  There are clothes for cats, too, but one website that features the garments explains that your cat "will learn to like them," which may mean you're going to get bloody trying to pull a wool sweater over Tabatha's head.

So, why do we do it?  Why do most of us treat our pets like members of the family, often to the extent where we begin to think they have human characteristics?  Why do we spoil them and then freely admit that they are "spoiled rotten?"  Adam Waytz, postdoctoral research associate at Harvard University, has a couple of plausible explanations as to why people anthropomorphize, i.e., attribute human traits to animals.

Why People Treat Animals Like Family

First, many people are lonely.  And many of them have a difficult time relating to other people, which is why they are lonely to begin with.  It's much easier for those folks to relate to a creature that greets them at the door with ears down, tail wagging, and a slobbery stuffed toy in its mouth every time they return to the house.  Or that kitty that hops into their lap and curls up to sleep when they plop down in front of the TV.  Or that bird that sings so beautifully or can talk and say their name.  No conflicts and no arguments.

Secondly, providing animals with human traits may offer a means for some people to make sense of the world around them.  They resolve certain issues they have by talking to their pets, while in reality they are simply talking to themselves, sorting things out, so to speak, and coming to resolutions and conclusions.  Their pet becomes a sounding board, a good listener, a friend who understands what it is that's bothering them and doesn't interrupt with an opposing opinion or suggestion. 

Psychology Today columnist and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia Stanley Coren adds yet another dimension to the discussion by contributing that " ... emotionally healthy human beings have the need to nurture, and pets are the perfect recipient.  They return the favor of all the love, care and baby talk with their innate ability, proven in scientific studies, to reduce stress, speed healing, and improve humans' fitness and social-interactive skills."

This isn't something new.  Treating pets as family goes back centuries, Professor Coren says.  During the time of Julius Caesar, financially well-off women in Rome carried around dogs that were decked out in jewels.  When his greyhound died, Frederick the Great, King of Prussia in the 1700s, wrote about the heartache he had to endure.  More recently, playwright Eugene O'Neill, who couldn't get along with his children, adored his Dalmatian, who had an Hermes raincoat and a four-poster bed.

How Well Do You Treat Your Pet?

So, how well do you treat your pet as a member of your family?  You already know the answer, but just for fun, here's a quick quiz you can take.  There are no right or wrong answers, no perfect or imperfect scores.  But, if you keep reading, you can see how you compare with the results of two surveys about families and their pets ... and upon which the quiz questions are based.

My pet:

__1. has a human name (Bill or Lilly, etc.) rather than (Fluffy or Hissy, etc.)

__2. lives with me indoors and can roam freely throughout most of the house

__3. gets fed from the table regularly

__4. sleeps on the bed with me or another family member

__5. goes along with me in the car, sometimes even on vacation

__6. shows up in family photos and is featured in holiday greetings cards, vacations, celebrations

__7. has me referring to myself as Mommy or Daddy, even though I have no children or they are grown and no longer live at home

__8. receives gifts from me for birthdays (or the day I brought him or her home), for Christmas and other holidays

__9. doesn't have to leave the room while I entertain visiting company

--10.definitely has a role in the family, i.e., watch dog, front door greeter, chief mouse catcher, companion to the children or someone ill or handicapped

If you checked some of these statements, your pet probably is part of your family.  But even if you didn't check any of them, it doesn't necessarily mean otherwise.  How your pet fits in with your family and your lifestyle is strictly between you and the animal.  And every family is different.

Studies On Pets As Family

For comparison purposes, take a look at the following Kelton Research study commissioned by Del Monte Foods' Milo's Kitchen in 2011.  Kelton came up with some revealing information about dogs and their families and found that:

  •  81 percent of Americans consider their dogs to be equal members of the family
  •  54 percent consider themselves to be pet parents rather than pet owners
  • More than half said this started the moment their pet joined the family
  • 58 percent call themselves Mommy or Daddy when referring to their relationships with their dogs
  •  35 percent even refer to their pet as "son" or "daughter"
  •  23 percent have a photo album devoted exclusively to their pets
  •  79 percent talk about their dog more than politics (this number may be different for 2012, a presidential election year)
  •  57 percent say they and their partners chat more about their dogs than sex

In a similar Associated Press study in 2009, nearly half of all respondents said they consider their pets as part of the family.  "Singles were more likely to say a pet was a full member of the family than married people -- 66 percent of single women versus 46 percent of married women, for example.  And men were less likely to call their pet a full member of the household."

  •  36 percent said their pet is part of the family, but not a full-fledged member
  • 19 percent had an outfit for the pet
  • 42 percent have taken their pet on a vacation, with dogs more likely to be taken than cats
  •  nearly a third allow their pets to sleep in a human bed

From the pet's perspective what's not to like?  A comfortable home and a Serta mattress far outweigh the embarrassment of having to wear some silly outfit that "mommy" drapes over him every time he goes outside.  Pets, especially dogs, seem to know that when they please us they pretty much get whatever they want.  So they do what they have to do to fit into the family.  And, we've been falling for it for centuries.