With the Christmas Season approaching, one thing you’ll notice at the mall is proud pet owners shopping for their cats and dogs. According to a recent survey by the APPA (American Pet Products Association), about half of all cat and dog owners include their pets on their Christmas lists. Sound crazy? The numbers are even higher in a poll by PetFinder.com, where 63% of those that owned dogs and 58% of cat owners give their pets Christmas presents. Time Magazine cites a figure of 50 million dollars annually spent on the practice.
Some of the giving is quite lavish as well, everything from pet jewelry (see: LilyLobster beaded dog collars) to $1000+ treadmills, made expressly for dogs. So when is it too much?
According to psychologists, it’s gone too far when pet owners:
- bring their pets to places or events where they aren’t typically allowed
- Neglect relationships with their family, consistently citing their pet’s needs
- Pass on activities and socail situations because of their pets
The popular magazine Psychology Today uncovered two drivers that making this phenomenon more common. The first reason is the increasing number of American couples that are either are childless, or have choen to have fewer children. They also cite an additional factor where our increased life spans have older parents experiencing the “Empty Nest”, when their children move out of the house, for a much longer period of time than in the past. Dogs and cats, in this situation, provide the parents with something to raise and take care of. This “surrogate” status often produces the strong bond that causes some pet owners to feel like their pets are children.
Technically, this tendency to treat animals like humans does have a name…Anthropmorphism. There’s an interesting study, performed by Texas Christian University, that shows it’s easy to induce some of this effect into most people. They gathered a group of human participants, and were able to influence people’s attitudes towards dogs solely through the use of language. For example, referring to someone with a dog as a “pet guardian” instead of a “pet owner”, tends to humanize a person’s perception of the relationship. When prompted with questions regarding a situation where a human, then a dog, were in a dangerous situation, the study found this:
“Overall, participants were more willing to help humans than dogs, but they were significantly more willing to help dogs when they were described with anthropomorphic language compared with nonanthropomorphic language. These results provide evidence that subtle changes to language may improve the treatment of animals.”
Of course, while some pet owners may carry the “humanizing” of their pets too far, the psychological, and even health, benefits of pet ownership are clear:
- The Minnesota Stroke Institute studied over 4,000 cat owners, over a period of ten years, and concluded that owning a cat can measurably reduce your chances of heart disease
- A Canadian study of 1000 elderly pet owners found them significantly more active than their “petless” counterparts
So, while it may be a little unsettling to see your “crazy Aunt” dressing up her dogs and bringing them to your holiday dinner, it’s good for her. Unless it’s causing a real issue beyond seeming a little silly, it’s probably best just to bite your tongue and let her enjoy the companionship.