Like many Americans, I’m a big fan of dogs. As my wife and I prepare to become empty-nesters, I’ve noticed that we’re spending more time obsessing over our family pooch, perhaps because he actually still wants to hang out with us. In recent years, however, our society’s relationship with pets appears to have changed in unhealthy ways.
As discussed in a 2017 article published by the Institute for Family Studies, the number of pets in the United States has risen dramatically since 2012, and people are spending a greater portion of their personal income on their animals. The share of dogs and cats covered by pet insurance has also soared in recent years. Americans now spend around $70 billion a year on pet-related products and services.
Economic prosperity undoubtedly contributes to these trends. In general, people with more money spend more on their pets. There are now even dog spas and resorts, typically in the more affluent parts of the country. But how Americans view and treat their pets isn’t just about wealth. There are other social and psychological variables at play, particularly among younger adults.
Humans have a basic need to belong — to form and maintain close social bonds — as well as a need to feel like our lives are meaningful. These needs are typically intertwined: When asked to describe what makes life meaningful, most people zero in on close relationships, and studies show that the more people feel connected to and supported by others, the more they view their lives as full of meaning. Traditionally, family life has played a vital role in meeting these psychological needs. But young adults today are less likely to marry and have children than young adults of previous generations. They are also more likely to live alone and have fewer people in their lives whom they feel they can rely on for social support.
Are young adults who aren’t partnering up or starting families turning to their pets to feel loved and purposeful? Pet ownership is on the rise among single people. Single women are more likely to have pets than single men, but pet ownership among both groups is increasing. Compared to married people, single adults are more likely to view their pets as family members. And the lonelier people are, the more inclined they are to perceive pets as having human-like characteristics.
Young adults appear particularly likely to prioritize their pets as if they were human family members. While income is generally a good predictor of spending on pets, this isn’t the case among the younger generation. Unlike middle-aged and older adults, for Americans under the age of 30, limited financial resources do not reduce the likelihood of buying premium pet food. Corporate America is beginning to understand and capitalize on how young adults view their pets. Some employers looking to attract young talent offer pet insurance and pet-daycare services, or allow workers to bring their dogs to the office. Some companies even provide employees “pawternity” leave to allow them to spend time bonding and adjusting to life with a new pet.
More and more, pets are at the center of the major life decisions that were once driven largely by marriage and family. A 2017 survey found that 33 percent of first-time home-buying Millennials say that finding a better space or yard for their dogs influenced their decision to buy a home, while only 25 percent cited marriage or plans for marriage and only 19 percent cited the birth or expected birth of child. The only two motives for home ownership that topped wanting better space for dogs were the desire for more living space and the opportunity to build equity. 42 percent of Millennials who have yet to buy a home reported that having or wanting a dog is a key factor in their future home-buying plans.
The real question, then, is why some turn to animals instead of other people to fulfill basic psychological needs.
Consider also the growing trend of emotional-support animals. As loneliness and anxiety are on the rise among teens and young adults, colleges are receiving more requests to accommodate such animals. Most dog owners won’t be surprised to learn that there is research suggesting dogs can help combat loneliness and promote general well-being. But the evidence that they effectively help people struggling with mental illness is, in the immortal words of Lucy from Peanuts, as thin as a promise.
The real question, then, is why some turn to animals instead of other people to fulfill basic psychological needs. Though there might be many reasons, I’d like to focus on two specific possibilities, both of which implicate the individualistic nature of contemporary American culture.
First, if young adults feel more socially isolated or disconnected, they may view pets as a safer form of social connection. Research indicates that loneliness and ostracism trigger a defensive cognitive and emotional response in which people become motivated to avoid further social harm. This can reduce their inclination to take social risks, to put themselves out there in a way that makes them more socially vulnerable. Their social defensiveness may in turn make pets an especially attractive source of companionship. (Indeed, as previously noted, loneliness is associated with a tendency to view pets as having human-like characteristics and pets can help reduce feelings of loneliness.)
Second, in our individualistic society, pets may be appealing to some because they lack the agency of humans and thus require less compromise and sacrifice. Other people have their own goals, opinions, and interests. Human relationships thus require negotiation. With a quick Google search, you can find a number of “think pieces” arguing that dogs are better companions than humans. The unifying and ultimately self-centered theme of many of these pieces is that dogs will shower you with positive affirmation no matter what, while demanding little in return. They allow you to gain some of the benefits of companionship and caregiving, without most of the costs.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Americans are increasingly interested in the types of social connections that allow them to feel both safe and special. In our individualistic culture, we often privilege self-esteem over characteristics such as responsibility, loyalty, duty, and sacrifice. We also coddle children and teens to protect them from the social risks and emotional pains of life. But doing so is not without its costs. By teaching our kids to focus primarily on their own happiness, we may be failing to convey that life’s most meaning-providing and socially-fulfilling goals are often stressful, can make us temporarily unhappy, and require concession.
People find the greatest personal meaning and are best able to cope with the life stresses that threaten meaning when they view the individual self as subordinate to a broader social self — a marriage, a family, a religious community. Pets are great additions to our social world, but they are poor substitutes for the messier human relationships that make life worth living.