Pets, Parties, and Inclusion as Family Members
You and your shih tzu Sammie are the best of friends. In fact, you call Sammie your baby boy and you reference yourself as his mother*. Sammie is always excited to welcome you home at the end of each work day. He goes on runs with you, snuggles you while you watch TV, and cheers you up when you’re sad. He is always happy, never critical. He doesn’t care if you gain weight, have a bad hair day, or wear sweat pants. In short, Sammie is an excellent companion.
You are not alone: more and more people are counting their pets among their beloved family members. As our culture becomes more sensitized to the perspectives of others, and as our birth rate declines, pets are becoming our children. Sensitization is a driver of this change in that we are becoming more aware of and responsive to the feelings of our four-legged companions. After all, they feel joy, sadness, fear, and love; it is a measure of our wisdom and empathy that we recognize and value that. Declining birth rate is also a driver of this change in that, absent human children, we find an outlet for our parenting instincts by loving and nurturing our four-legged companions.
While it can be argued that this human-pet bond can decrease human need for interaction with other humans, thus contributing to the breakdown of social interconnectivity, social skills, human relationships, and other elements essential in society, this author believes that reliance on advancing technology is a far greater contributor to these social trends. Furthermore, the benefits from the closer human-pet bond far outweigh the risks. Those benefits include increased sensitivity and empathy (see above), love and nurturing (bilaterally between humans and pets), and companionship. Furthermore, contrary to the opinions of some, pets can actually increase human social interconnectivity. For example, if you take Sammie with you on your daily runs, you will likely meet other runners who have canine running partners or who love dogs even if they don’t have a dog of their own. You can strike up conversations and begin relationships with other humans based on your mutual affinity for dogs.
Including pets as beloved family members manifests in myriad ways: the names we give our four-legged family members (i.e., “humanized” names like Sammie rather than traditional animal names like Spot, Fido, Felix, and Fluffy), the gifts we give our child-pets (i.e., birthday gifts, Christmas gifts, etc.), the accoutrement that is now considered normal in a household with pets (i.e., plush pet beds, a wide variety of pet toys, pet grooming products and accessories, pet apparel, etc.), the increasing cost and quality of pet foods now on the market, the growing number of retail and other establishments now touting themselves as pet-friendly (i.e., hotels that allow pets in their guest rooms, stores that allow pets to shop with their humans, etc.), and pets’ increased participation in their humans’ social interactions with other humans.
Pets’ increased involvement in human social interaction involves special attention in this article. Just as parents would not (or at least should not) take their newborn to a wedding to which the newborn was not invited because the bride does not want infant cries to disrupt the ceremony, pet parents should not take their pet-children to social activities at which the hosts do not wish to include the pet-children. Whether the hosts have pet allergies, phobias, pets of their own who do not welcome other pets into their territory, or other concerns, guests must respect the wishes of the hosts . . . or simply not attend the social activity if that respect cannot be given. If guests are uncertain as to the wishes of their hosts, it is appropriate for guests to proactively ask their hosts to clarify whether pets are invited. It is important to ask such questions in a manner that communicates acceptance of the hosts’ right to choose. If guests word their questions in a manner that suggests that not inviting their pets will be frowned upon by the guests, the hosts can feel pressured, which is contrary to social etiquette. If the invitation is extended to pets, guests should next seek to understand more detailed boundaries. For example, is it acceptable for Sammie to lick humans, jump up on them, bark, play in the yard, etc. at the social activity? What pet behaviors are acceptable at the social activity? If Sammie is not accustomed to these behavioral boundaries, can he be taught them before the date of the social activity? If not, then Sammie should not attend the activity in deference to the hosts’ preferences for acceptable conduct at their event. Once at the social activity, Sammie’s pet parents should supervise him, just as they would supervise their human children. When Sammie’s behavior fails to conform to expectations, it is the responsibility of his pet parents to ensure that his behavior is redirected and returns to conformance with expectations.
Having pet-children is a growing trend in our society. Like all trends, it has those who speak in support of it and those who speak in opposition to it. This author believes the trend is overall quite positive. Having pet-children comes with responsibility, just as having human children does. This author encourages readers to accept the responsibility, embrace the trend, love and be loved . . . being a pet parent and nurturing a pet-child is a blessing to both pet parent and pet child.