What Caused The Humanization of Pets?
As a rep for a high-end holistic pet food company, I spend 30 hours a week in various pet supplies stores talking to pet owners about diets, feeding protocols and behavior…and of course, trying to get them to buy our food.
A refrain I often hear is, “Oh, I’ve tried a lot of expensive foods and the dog got…” followed by a litany of ills.
Especially from fellow baby boomers, who follow up with; “When I was a kid, we never had any of this stuff. We fed our dogs canned horsemeat and table scraps and they were as healthy as can be…shiny coat, white teeth, blah, blah blah.” And for good measure, they throw in, “…and they lived to be 20 years old.”
Nonsense. I was there. Growing up in the suburbs in the 50’s, our dogs stank, their breath stank, their teeth were horribly discolored, they scratched incessantly and they mostly lived outside.
They slept on or under the back porch and if it rained and we had no dog house, they got to come inside, but down in the cellar. “Bring him to the vet? What for? He didn’t get hit by a car.” They only saw a vet once a year…at the annual rabies clinic at the fire station. And they seldom made it into their teens.
Fast forward to today. Many dog owners are feeding food that costs well over $50 a bag. They’re pampering pooches with toys, treats, hugs and cuddles. They bring them to see the vet at least once a year for a check-up; bring them to doggy day care, the dog park, and with them on vacation. Money is no object…almost, anyway, in most cases...as we lavish fashion and luxury items on our pets.
They don’t stink, their breath is largely “kissing sweet,” they’re in better health from their coat to their teeth, and they sleep in our beds with us.
So what brought about this change…what the pet supply industry has termed “the humanization of pets?”
An Internet search on the subject turns up plenty about the economics of the phenomenon; how love-struck pet parents have bottomless purses and wallets when it comes to the fur kids, and how savvy business owners can board that gravy train (no pun intended). Trade publications are rife with ways to exploit the phenomenon.
But you'll have a hard time finding anything about how it all of a sudden happened.
I have a simple theory. Leash laws.
Prior to the advent of leash laws, free-roaming dogs were a nuisance. They fowled the landscape with their waste, trespassed onto our private property and terrorized our children, barked at and fought with each other, scattered our trash all over the neighborhood on curb-side pickup day, and generally were considered to be problematic.
As housing developments flourished and tightly packed neighborhoods sprung up, magnifying the scourge of the roaming dogs, zoning ordinances changed and a few communities enacted “leash laws.” These laws required owners to be in complete control of their dogs at all times and also prohibited the free-roaming of dogs.
Animal control officials, known then as dog catchers, would imprison roaming dogs in shelters, known then as dog pounds, and owners would pay the ransom to get them released from the big house. But it essentially worked. There was peace across the land.
So then, leash law fever spread all across America so that, now, only some rural communities still don’t have leash laws on the books.
Thus being forced into a more up-close-and-personal relationship with their dogs, owners were quick to address the body odor, bad breath, and manners issues. And we fell in love.
We openly mourned the loss of a pet, where previously we’d suppress such emotions for fear of having societal eyes rolled at us. We love being with our pets so much that we take them everywhere with us. The drive-up window usually produces a treat for the dog.
At some restaurants in Europe, dogs are welcome to join their owners, though America hasn’t arrived there yet. But, through legislation, we’ve held airlines to a higher standard when transporting our pets, written humane laws that protect animals, and created harsher penalties for animal cruelty convictions.
With pet owners demonstrating a willingness to pay more for higher quality, we’ve seen improvements in everything from pet food to veterinary care. The more affluent communities don’t have pet supplies stores; they have pet boutiques where you can pay over $2,000 for a Gucci soft sided pet carrier.
Last year, Americans spent $55.72 billion dollars on pets, and this year the American Pet Products Association estimates that we’ll spend $58.51 billion. Is it any wonder then that manufacturers are emboldened to greater heights in pet product offerings?
In my opinion, the long arm of the law, the leash law, that is, ushered in a cultural revolution that continues to evolve, much to the approval of just about everyone.