A guest blog entry by Mary Wolf (student, world citizen)
In today’s exponentially increasing urbanized and industrialized world, pets hold an integral role in helping humanity to feel like a part of the natural world around them.
The word pet can mean many things to many different people. In the context of this article, I will be defining pets as any living non-human species from the animal kingdom that co-habitat with a human household, with specific focus on cats and dogs.
The bonds between cats and dogs and their owners is extremely strong due to the fact that owners have a longer life span than the aforementioned pet possibilities and pets can mimic human characteristics in their ability to communicate on a very low level, often taking on human mannerisms of many kinds and allowing them to be seen at times as if people.
Further, the bond between a pet and its owner is therapeutic both emotionally and physically. In fact, this bond is so close that in a survey administered by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (2008), 84% of pet owners believe that pets make their family and home life emotionally or physically healthier, and 70% describe playing with or confiding in their pets as a relaxing or calming experience which allows them to “cope better with life and the associated stresses of our fast-paced society when they are stressed or worried” (APPMA, 2008).
Despite possible negatives associated with pet ownership, such as financial and time commitments, it seems interesting that so many Americans find it necessary to have a pet to ensure their emotional well being. In C. Wright Mills’ Sociological Imagination he says that, “neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both” (Mills, 1959). Mills (1959) further argues that we must look at historical contexts to understand why the definition of family is becoming such a fluid concept. Societal standards have moved rapidly in the past one hundred years from a simplistic view of the family as being a mother, father, and 2.5 children on average. The view has now changed to that of family being comprised of those who love and support you, regardless of blood or legal ties.
So then, it makes sense that as a society we would begin to include pets in the varying definitions of family.
And even among the varying degrees of emotional support that pets give their owners, it seems certain that pets are quickly becoming rightful members of millions of American families from all walks of life. While the money spent on pets could possibly be used for what some might consider a greater good of society, such as put an end to poverty or other societal ills, people are putting their need to care for a dog before many other things. While this may seem counter-intuitive, it stems from the self based society that we live in, where we are continually trying to better ourselves and our family rather than our community, state, and/or country.
In a society based around rewards and punishment, it follows that conformity to the norm is the “best” way to live your life. As pets become more and more popular among mainstream individuals and families, those without pets may have the desire to conform to this standard. Even individuals who may be allergic to cats or dogs can purchase special hybrid non-allergenic pets, driven by a need to conform to standards of materialistic goals of society.
Pet ownership is beneficial at both the micro and macro levels of society, with an end result of furthering the socialization of pet owners. With such a focus on this socialization process, sadly many pets are left in shelters or homeless everyday. But millions more pets are truly touched by the relationships built with their owner, making pet ownership a necessary factor in our society.
Clearly, the ever changing definition of family fits snuggly into the socio-historical context of the breakdown of the nuclear family and the construction of a much more fluid concept of family to include friends and pets.
(APPA) American Pet Products Association, Inc. 2008. “Pet owner Industry Trends.” Website, http://www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp, date accessed December 1, 2009.
Mills, C. Wright, 2000(1959). The Sociological Imagination: 40th Anniversary Edition. Oxford University Press.