First aired on Tooth and Claw (9/7/2013)
For many people, pets have become just like members of the family. But what does it mean to view animals as pseudo-humans -- for both the people and the pets? Are deep emotional connections with animals a good thing? Jon Katz, who has written a dozen books about dogs, doesn't think so. He believes seeing pets as people is hugely problematic for people, their pets and society at large.
Katz lives on a farm and has had several dogs in his life. "I think it's wonderful to love a pet," he told Tooth and Claw host Peter Brown. "You love an animal, you love a dog, you love a cat. What can be wrong with that?" But Katz believes our relationships with pets are evolving and pets are becoming surrogates for relationships with other people. "Animals have moved more and more into the centre of people's emotional lives. They become their best friends, soulmates, therapists and in many, many cases people refer to their pets as their children."
Katz points to our increasingly "complex and disconnected" society as a reason pets are gaining prominence in our emotional lives. "Many of the institutions that used to provide leadership and connections for people -- politics, technology, religion -- have declined or changed or become complicated or even divisive. I think people are looking elsewhere for unconditional love and support when they come home," he said. "In a fractious, disconnected world, there's an animal that just looks at them and loves them."
Katz believes this increased emotional reliance on pets is not good for animals. Pets can't be just pets any more. "Dogs and cats are becoming human emotional receptacles for our garbage. We just dump it all onto them," Katz said. And pets, especially dogs, react accordingly. "Dogs have learned to respond to our emotions and our needs. If you pay attention to a dog and you need it, the dog will begin modelling that behaviour and giving it back to you because it works for them." But they are suffering as a result: dog bites are up 47 per cent in recent years and more pets than ever being treated for "very human-style disorders like depression, anxiety and separation anxiety."
Capitalism has also played a role in encouraging such relationships with our pets. "In this capitalist culture, this great need becomes a great business," Katz said. Pets are now a $32 billion a year industry in North America. Pharmaceuticals are taking advantage of the trend to medicate pets, and more medication than ever is available for our animal companions. We buy fancy food and toys and spend billions on pet health care and pet training. These industries thrive and rely on us caring for and about our animals.
Katz is uncomfortable with the idea that we are spending billions on health care for our pets, when there are millions of Americans without access to health care. Pet rescue culture has exploded recently, with hundreds of thousands of people in North America dedicated to saving abandoned cats and dogs. And yet, Katz points out, "people are not rescued, and the whole idea of people rescue has become almost heresy."
Katz says other animal advocates agree with his position that focusing on our pets is a distraction from society's real problems, but he doesn't see the current "pets are people" mindset changing. "It's not the popular position, it's not the growing position and it's not the profitable position." He just hopes that those who love animals learn to do what's best for the animal and not what's best for themselves. "It's become all about what we need and not about what they need."
Photo of Jon Katz by Larry D. Moore. Licensed through Wikimedia Commons.