Why are pet owners more popular than parents? | Nell Frizzell
Here’s an opinion that will get me locked in a crate and pelted with scented cat litter: pets are more socially acceptable than babies because they’re simply easier to love.
Last month, Daunt Books published a new anthology called Dog Hearted, in which 14 writers explore, in beautiful, sometimes funny, often melancholy essays, their relationships to dogs. I’m not sure I can imagine a similar title ever being written about babies. Books about parenting (and I include my own) are all called things such as The Most Awful Thing I’ve Ever Done, or Why Did Nobody Tell Me This Was So Utterly Crap? or How the Hell Did This Happen?
We’re tearing ourselves apart with self-deprecation, self-doubt, guilt and anxiety, while cat and dog owners particularly are just out there, indulged and celebrated in their adoration of their furry dependents. Buying dog-friendly ice-cream, setting up Instagram accounts for their Bengal cat, employing pet psychologists because their dog keeps eating out of the bathroom bin, getting kangaroo meat imported from Australia because regular beef upsets their pet’s tummy.
Now, I hate a binary and I also hate like-minded people being intentionally pitted against each other by cynical members of the press. But, as a parent, I do find the modern attitude to pets a little strange. I have worked in four places where they either had an office dog or you could take your dog into work; I have never worked anywhere that provided on-site childcare. I have had people introduce their pets to me as “my handsome son” or “my beautiful baby” but then complain that their social media feed is “full of people’s kids”. I have been told that parenting is a “niche” area of interest (81% of women will have a baby by the time they reach 45), while pets have “mass appeal” (just 62% of households in the UK own a pet). The very people who balk or yawn at colleagues discussing their children in the office will often then regale you with stories of their cats sitting on their shoulders or dogs eating peanut butter.
When I searched the words “pet camera” online, I found a cool 1,010,000,000 results, including something called the Furbo Dog Camera. This little number retails at a hefty £199 and includes not just a 360-degree wide-angle lens, two-way audio, barking alert and cloud recording, but also – this is the one that really got me – “100 piece capacity Fun Treat Tossing technology”. You can now buy a video camera full of dry, reconstituted meat chunks that will sit in the middle of your living room and film, track and feed your dog while you go out and earn that necessary £199. If you’d like something more personal, you could pay about the same for a week’s “doggy daycare”. Some individuals, then, are willing to spend large sums of money to keep their pet fed, entertained and observed – but you will still find public reluctance to fund free, universal childcare through centralised taxation. Until a £199 robot childminder comes on the market, I suppose.
In the UK, for those of you who don’t know, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded 60 years after the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and still receives significantly less funding each year, through donations and legacies, than the pet charity. Perhaps this apparent preference shouldn’t be surprising. After all, domesticated animals are far, far less dependent on you for physical, emotional or psychological support than babies and children. They don’t hit you with years of hormonal fury during toddlerhood and adolescence, don’t learn to talk, don’t develop challenging political views, fall in love with drug dealers or steal your record collection. Finally, if the pet in question is a total nightmare, it is possible to give it away, or take it to a shelter, with very little social stigma.
But, maybe you think that pets aren’t more socially acceptable than babies. You may read this whole column as the oversensitive self-pity of someone who once had their one-year-old knocked over in a cafe by a bulldog before being told it was their fault for letting the child hold a biscuit. You may think I have simply overlooked the myriad ways we overindulge our children while setting up a false antagonism between pets and babies. You may think the comparison between individual spending on luxury pet accessories and publicly funded early years services is false. And maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m wrong. After all, I’m only human – just a delicious combination of meaty chunks and gravy.
Nell Frizzell is the author of Holding the Baby: Milk, Sweat and Tears from the Frontline of Motherhood
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