Marketing Insights: the evolution of the modern pets and owners relationship
The number of pet owners is rising, globally. A lifestyle trend that is taking place in an ever changing environment. Our consumer society in the postmodern era is fragmented, less-nuclear, fast-paced, and disconnected. Amplified by the isolation and loneliness caused by Covid lockdowns. As a result, there has been a notable increase in the number of households buying a pet. This meets a range of human needs, from companionship, social interaction to wellbeing support. How did dogs launch a coup d’état in our relationship to Fur families. What changed in the pet ownership relationship and the pet market?
Even though we anthropomorphize our pets, the emotional connection is real for many owners. We give them human names, buy them clothes, share our beds, feeding them food that looks like ours, and taking them to specialist doctors when they are ill.
The US pet industry was worth $123 billion this year, with more money spent on pets by younger generations. This covers the entire lifecycle of their pets: designer breeds, medical procedures, humanised meals, a buffet of treats, designer clothes, and branded paraphernalia.
Is there a reason for us to form such strong emotional attachments to our pets?
40,000 years ago, dogs were part of our lives and remain so today. There is evidence that mutual co-evolution is a consequence of this relationship. They have become an established part of Western culture and society. No other animal is closer to our hearts (unless you’re a cat person).
There are a wide variety of animals that are kept as pets eg. cats, rodents, reptiles, fish, insects, to name a few. To the quirky, Sea Monkeys, Hermit Crabs, and the giant cockroach. The biologist Edward O. Wilson, believed that humanity has a biofilia. This is a natural affinity for life that binds us to other species. Even in our urban jungles, we still want to connect to nature.
Is there a reason for us to form such strong emotional attachments to our pets? How did we get to fur family.
The term ‘companion animal’ has been deemed less derogatory than the word ‘pet’. ‘Pet owner’ means that pets are our property, and we are their masters. The criticism is that pets may be viewed as property without moral constraints.
Although, a consideration is that dog owners are willing to pay more than cat owners on their care. This is because dogs give owners a psychological sense of mastery. Dog owners experience a feeling of being the master not the servant (to the cat). So even if many want to talk to the animal as an equal, this doesn’t necessarily reflect the psychological needs of the relationship.
Our changing relationship with pets may be reflected in this ‘political correctness’. The more we see them as family members, the less we want to see them as objects or ‘slaves’.
How does this look from the pet’s perspective?
There is increasing evidence that the co-evolution of dogs has given them advantages in creating relationships with us. They have evolved the ability to respond to human facial expressions. Dogs can discriminate between the different emotional expressions of human faces. It is also likely that they can smell our different emotions.
Selective breeding has evolved ‘cute’ features that makes dogs more attractive to us. Additionally, when we look into each other’s eyes, there is a reciprocal oxytocin release. A hormone that is a neurotransmitter associated with empathy, trust, and building relationships. They have an evolutionary advantage to winning over our hearts.
Are pets a skeuomorphic remnant of our pre-urban lives? They used to guard our homes, help us hunt, or hunt for rats. Today, it’s hard to reconcile the saying ‘a dog’s life’ with its meaning: an unhappy existence, full of problems or unfair treatment. Today, dogs live a privileged life, as any search online will show. So, what has changed to us and our relationship with them?
Changing metaphors of our relationship: from master to parents of a fur family
Over the last century, dogs and cats have gone from being an outsider, to being a member of the family. There are three metaphors that people think about when reflecting on their relationship with their pets:
1. Friend – pet is a companion
2.Parent – caring for a child.
3.Master – the animal has a more utilitarian role, works for a living.
In an American study, 81% of those surveyed considered their dog to be a true family member, equal in status to their children. Furthermore, 54% believed they were ‘pet parents’ rather than ‘pet owners’.
It’s trendy now to talk of having a ‘fur family’. But, it’s not clear from these studies if this is just a more socially appealing term, over any real change in behaviour. Clearly, dogs and cats have been welcomed into the family dynamic, but, has how we feel about them substantially changed? Is this a semantic change or a change in relationship? Plant and fish owners have also hijacked the term ‘parent’.
We have fewer utilitarian expectations from our dogs and cats, as most are not expected to ‘work for a living’. The trend is to breed less practical dogs. Many dogs and cats are selectively bred to simply look cute. The over-ascribing of human characteristics to an animal is known as ‘bambification’. Some pet brands employ infantilization in advertising and marketing. Framing the animal as a dependent child, meeting the psychological needs of owners.
Modelling Pet and Owner Relationships
Placing the utilitarian dog-relationships to one side, in research, we’ve found some common themes in how people talk about their relationships with their pets. It’s important to recognise that people’s relationship changes with their pets, change over time. Also, different members of a family will have individual relationships with the one animal. e.g. a companion (friend) to a child, might be a family member to the adults (caregivers).
Interdependence vs dependence addresses the degree of psychological projection and transference from the owner. An interdependent relationship is one that is based on mutuality; both parties having their own identities. Dependence, in this context, speaks to the need of the owner to define the relationship between themselves and the pet. These owners are more likely to anthropomorphise and personify their pets. E.g., Fur babies are often infantilised and perpetually treated as an infant, regardless of age.
How people identity with their dogs, doesn’t mean that they are merely extensions of their lives, they have also been described as being co-extensive with the self. In this case, the owner sees themselves as being almost the same person as their pet.
What are the implications of more fur babies?
Despite this, parental terminology does have real implications for humanity. Our behaviour is reflecting this terminology.
In January 2022, the Pope suggested that couples who prefer pets to children are selfish:
This also reflects a reality of falling birth rates in developed countries. The US Census Bureau reported that the proportion of households made up of married couples with children fell from 40% in 1970 to 20% in 2012. But seven in 10 of these households included a pet.
There is a similar trend in China. The urban pet market has increased from 72.5 billion yuan in 2015, to 298.8 billion yuan in 2022 ($46 Billion US Dollars). With an increasing number of young adults choosing to marry later and delay parenthood.
Pet ownership and identity: what does our pet say about us?
Pets have become another category of consumer goods used to construct our personal and social identities.
Dog breeds, how they’re accessorised and how they’re dressed, says a lot about the owner. Some people view adopting a pet from a shelter as a way of virtue signalling their values about pet ownership. Expensive breeds represent status and wealth. Celebrities use dogs as accessories to communicate their personal brand. An aggressive breed can resonate with an owner’s masculinity or conversely, with their fears.
Investigating the decision-making factors influencing the type of dog to buy, a study discovered that dog-identity was most important. Influential factors: appearance, personality, and temperament and how the dog interacted with people. Earlier studies have also linked pet-owners identification with their pets, to be post-rationalised as fitting with their own personalities, lifestyle and families. Supported by a recent study proving that dog breed is a poor indicator of dog behaviour. This challenges popular breed stereotypes that people choose dogs by.
According to a study of the factors influencing the decision to buy a dog, the most important consideration is the dog’s identity. Appearance, temperament, and how the dog interacted with people were all influential factors. The identification of pet-owners with their pets has also been linked to post-rationalisation as matching their own personalities, lifestyles, and families. Recent studies show that a dog breed is a poor indicator of dog behaviour. This contradicts popular breed stereotypes.
The grief people feel for losing a pet is acknowledged as being the same as for human companions. Increasingly, we are humanising their departure. There are an increasing range of options of pet caskets, to being able to turn your pet’s ashes into a diamond to challenging death itself by cloning your pet.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
This apparently isn’t true. Our relationships with dogs started 40,000 years ago and in the last 100 years, they have moved from living outside and working for a living, to being part of the family, living a life of luxury.
It’s a stunning velvet coup d’état, enabled by evolutionary advantages that we have selectively bred into them.
In a world that is more virtual and less predictable, our relationships with pets are authentic and real. Dogs can reciprocate emotions and in a world of ‘fake’ meaning, they are unconditionally consistent and easy to understand.
Globally, pets are being bought in increasing numbers to fulfil needs that society and our relationships are not entirely fulfilling. 100 years ago, we didn’t view dogs and cats this way. To overwork Maslow’s pyramid, in exchange for taking care of all their physiological needs, we look to them to solve our social and emotional needs.
Increasingly, they form an extension of our own identities. Who our pets are semiotically communicates who we are. If advertising and marketing reflect society desires, we’re in a messaging loop that is bringing them closer into our families. However, a point that often gets lost in the term ‘fur family’ is that it assumes that the whole family has fur. They aren’t joining our ‘skin family’, we are becoming a member of their fur pack. A masterly fur coup d’état.