With the holiday season underway, we will begin to have a steady influx of holiday cards being dropped into our home mailboxes. I have always enjoyed opening these cards and seeing what my family friends have been up to in the past year of their lives. It is worthy to note that in many of these cards, a family’s pet will be acknowledged either in the family photo or in the salutation.
Because our pets are such an important part of our daily lives, we tend to humanize them as members of our families. This can take the form of displaying them on a holiday card, buying them an array of toys, ensuring they have the most comfortable bed on the market and paying for any medical care necessary no matter what the cost is. This sounds very similar to the way we care for our children — spending and doing whatever it takes to make them comfortable and content. In fact, pets are so commonplace in the United States that they actually outnumber children by a ratio of four to one.
However, this was not always the case. In the 1800s, owning a pet was a rare privilege for the wealthy. Pets were considered a luxury item and status symbol that served for practical purposes. Dogs were primarily used for hunting and cats were mainly used to keep small pests, such as mice, out of the house.
200 years later, the culture surrounding pets has changed drastically. Rather than being a rare luxury item, we now see 67% of U.S. households owning a pet regardless of that household’s income. This is up 11% since 1988, when the first of these surveys was conducted, suggesting an upward trend in pet ownership.
We are left to wonder: Why do we continue to own pets if we no longer need them for functional reasons? Why is pet ownership on the rise without any practical uses for it?
There are various ways to answer these questions, one of which involves the physical and emotional benefits that come with owning a pet. Interacting with your pet is proven to lower blood pressure by 10% and to lower cortisol, the body’s natural stress hormone. It releases a variety of “feel good” hormones such as oxytocin, prolactin and serotonin. There is an element of emotional support our pets provide. Even when we are feeling lonely, they never leave our sides and continue to display unconditional love. We are drawn to the positive feelings we have when we are around our pets and this encourages us to continue purchasing them throughout the course of our lives.
This all sounds very wholesome, but there is speculation over whether increased pet ownership is due to their value or due to their trendiness and aesthetic. This is especially applicable to the market for purebred dogs. It seems a person’s dog is increasingly fit to their aesthetic, walking alongside their owner as a $5,000 accessory.
Breeding animals to uphold a certain aesthetic can be cruel and detrimental to their health. Docking tails from certain dog breeds is a common but excruciatingly painful procedure performed on puppies — without anesthesia. Some appearances that are genetically selected for during breeding, such as a squashed-face look on pugs and bulldogs, can block a dog’s nasal passages and give them trouble breathing. Creating a strong purebred lineage often involves inbreeding, which shrinks the gene pool, therefore increasing the probability of an individual dog carrying a deleterious genetic mutation.
We must turn inwards and reflect upon what we value about our pets — their appearance or their companionship? If it is appearance at an animal’s expense that we value more, what does this say about American culture? Maybe America’s rugged capitalism has fostered a sense of selfishness in our culture. We tend to act in ways that are self-serving and bring us the most personal success possible. It is plausible to say this selfishness manifests itself in the form of a one-year-old bulldog who can barely breathe. But no need to worry, because at least it looks cute, right?
On a more optimistic note, I feel that pet ownership does remain largely centered around the companionship they add to our families and the warmth they bring to our hearts. Otherwise, they would not have an entire section on this year’s holiday cards.
In terms of breeding these animals in a direction that could be harmful to their health, we must check our own values and remember to stay authentic with our pets by appreciating their companionship rather than their appearances. They have always been unapologetically themselves with us, and it is our duty to reciprocate.
Even though we are away from our pets at college, I encourage you to try to find ways to experience this authenticity. Make time to interact with animals, as they can provide an immense amount of comfort to us. Whether it is from going to PetSmart to spend time with cats, going to University Health Service to relax with Hawkeye, Michigan’s wellness dog, or driving 15 minutes to Domino’s Petting Zoo to feed and pet a variety of farm animals, I can guarantee the trip will be worthwhile. I urge all of you to take care of your mental health and allow yourself time to relax through the company of an animal. Let us all be reminded of the value they add to our lives.
Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.