New research suggests cats and dogs’ ‘moms’ and’ dads’ really take care of their pets – here’s the evolving explanation why

Have you noticed more cats in strollers lately? Or bumper stickers that say “I love my big dogs”? You can’t imagine it. More and more people are investing a lot of time, money and attention in their pets.

It sounds a lot like parenthood, but pets, not people.

Can this kind of animal care really be considered parental? Or is something else going on here?

I am an anthropologist who studies human-animal interactions, an area known as anthropozoology. I want to better understand the behavior of pet parents from an evolutionary science perspective. After all, cultural norms and evolutionary biology both suggest that people should focus on raising their own children, and not on animals of a completely different species.

More people without children, more parents of pets

The present moment is unique in the history of mankind. Many societies, including the United States, are experiencing major changes in the way people live, work and socialize. Fertility rates are low and people have more flexibility in how they choose to live their lives. These factors can cause people to stay in school and focus on defining themselves as an individual over family obligations. With the basics taken care of, people can focus on higher order psychological needs like feelings of accomplishment and a sense of purpose.

The stage is set for people to actively choose to focus on pets over children.

In previous research, I interviewed 28 self-identified childless pet owners to better understand how they relate to their pets. These people ostensibly shared that they had actively chosen cats and dogs over children. In many cases, their use of parent-child relationship terms – calling themselves a pet’s “mom”, for example – was just a shortcut.

They focused on meeting the species-specific needs of their dogs and cats. For example, they might meet the animal’s need for food by feeding it meals using a food puzzle, while most children are fed at the table. These pet owners recognized differences in the nutrition, socialization and learning needs of animals compared to children. They did not mindlessly replace human children with “fur babies” by treating them like little furry humans.

Other researchers find similar links, showing that childless pet owners perceive their companions as emotional and thinking individuals. This way of understanding the spirit of the animal helps to develop a parental identity towards the pets. In other cases, uncertain individuals find their need to feed sufficiently satisfied by taking care of pets, thereby cementing their fertility decisions to remain childless.

Feeding others is part of being human

Yet these results still don’t answer this question: Do people who choose pets over children really care for their pets? To answer, I turned to the evolution of parenting and caregiving.

Evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Hrdy wrote in 2009 that humans are cooperative breeders. This means that it is literally in our DNA and our ancestral history to help care for offspring that is not ours. Anthropologists and biologists call this trait alloparentality. It’s an evolutionary adaptation that has helped human beings who have cooperatively raised children survive. To early humans, this ancient environment was likely made up of small foraging societies in which some people traded custody for food and other resources.

I propose that it is this evolutionary story that explains the parenting of pets. If people have moved towards alloparentality and our environment now makes caring for children more difficult or less attractive for some, it makes sense that people will alloparry other species entering their homes. Alloparental pets can provide a way to meet the evolved need for nurturing while reducing the investment of time, money, and emotional energy in raising children.

Unravel the differences in pet care

To better understand this phenomenon of childless adults raising pets, I ran an online survey via social media, seeking responses from US-based dog and cat owners over the age of 18 years old. The survey included questions about attachment and caring behaviors using the Lexington. Attachment to the pet ladder. It also posed a series of questions that I developed to probe specific human behaviors in pet care – things like feeding, bathing, and training – as well as the degree of autonomy of pets. pets at home.

The final sample of 917 respondents included 620 parents, 254 non-parents and 43 undecided or unanswered people. Most respondents were also married or in a relationship for more than a year (57%), aged 25 to 60 (72%) and had at least a bachelor’s degree (77%). They were also predominantly female (85%) and heterosexual (85%), a common situation in research on human-animal interactions.

Parents and non-parents alike have reported a large amount of training and play with their pets. This discovery makes sense given that all pet owners need to help their dogs and cats learn to navigate a human world. Survey respondents reported socializing, training and enriching, including play, for their animals.

Non-parents were more likely to be the general caregivers. This finding also makes sense since parents often adopt or purchase pets to help their children learn responsibility and care for others. Pet owners without children invest time, money, and emotional energy directly into their pets.

Non-parents reported higher rates of general attachment to their animals. They more often viewed their pets as individuals. Non-parents were also more likely to use familial terms such as “parent”, “child”, “children” and “guardians” when referring to their relationships with their pets.

It is this difference, combined with evidence from my previous research that these people meet the species-specific needs of the dogs and cats they care for, that suggests that parenting for pets is really parenting for animals. of company. While the details may look quite different – attending training classes instead of school functions, or offering scent walks for dogs instead of coloring books for kids – the two practices serve the same evolved function. Whether it’s a child or a pet, people meet the same evolved need to care for, teach, and love another sensitive one.

My colleagues and I continue to collect data from around the world on how people live with animals. So far, this study provides evidence that, perhaps rather than being evolved to parent, humans are evolved to nurture. And as a result, who and when we are parents is much more flexible than you might initially think.

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