A few years ago I attended the birthday party of a friend’s French bulldog and was the only one not to show up with a gift. I have always been an animal lover, but I used to roll my eyes at people who indulged their pets. I would sneer at chihuahuas wearing custom knit sweaters and poodles who had home-cooked meals. Whenever I saw people kiss their dogs, I wondered what would happen if they redirected all the kindness and money they showered on their fur ball towards another human being instead. It seemed like a cruel example of the world’s inequality that the pet elite lived more luxuriously than many people.
And then, all of a sudden, puppy love trumped rationality. I happened to walk into a pet shop and make meaningful eye contact with a small, long-haired dog marketed as a “doxiepoo”, a dachshund mixed with a poodle (although I think it should have been sold as a Havanese). I came back a few days later for him, against the protests of everyone who knows my intense work schedule, who imagined the dog suffering through puppy purgatory, condemned to long days watching me write. I named him Theo, and suddenly I was part of a growing pack of modern pet owners who are lavishing more time, money and attention on their pets than ever before.
Dogs used to be thought of as guards, then as companions. Now they are being treated like children. No longer are they stuck with idiotic names like Fido and Fluffy: these days they get human names, such as Theo and Zoe. According to surveys, the majority of Americans see their pets as family members. Those with dogs increasingly identify themselves as “parents” rather than “owners”. This is leading to a boom in the pet industry. In America alone people spend a whopping $44bn annually on pet food, supplies and toys, and that figure is growing. Last year they shelled out around $400m for pet Halloween costumes, according to the National Retail Federation. In 2017 they will spend $593m on Valentine’s Day gifts for their animals.
The status of pets is changing for several reasons. Young people in the West are delaying getting married and having children. Millennials, like me, lavish their creatures with the time and emotional energy that they might one day show a child. The kind of flexible work that many young people favour is more accommodating to pet care than a 9-to-5. Some companies trying to curry favour with employees, including Google, now allow dogs in the office. Others, like Genentech, offer subsidised doggie daycare.
Just as parents invest in the physical wellbeing and safety of their children, they are also coddling their pets. Wearable devices for animals, which help owners monitor their dogs’ exercise in order to keep them slim, are an emerging trend. So are devices akin to baby monitors: “pet cams” let owners who are away from home keep an eye on their cats and dogs and talk to them through a speaker. You can now buy small mattresses made of memory foam, so your pets can sleep more soundly.
Pet owners also want their animals to eat like they do. There is an emerging trend of putting pets on a raw food “paleo” diet, for example serving dogs patties of wholesome meat. Pet treats are now of such high quality that it can be hard to distinguish them from human food. There are dog cookies shaped like doughnuts and ice-cream cones at pet-shop tills. I recently picked up what looked like an energy bar when I was paying for Theo’s “blowout” at the groomer, and the sales assistant assured me that the coconut flavoured one was delicious and fit for human consumption.
Pet pandering continues to take on new forms. Rover.com, an American company, is one of severals firms around the world that act as an “Airbnb for pets”. Instead of leaving them at the kennel, owners can now use these services to find caretakers who look after pets in their homes. People can also check their pets into “hotels” that play TV and promise soothing “pawdicures”. A new terminal at New York’s JFK airport is under construction, which will cater to pets and livestock travelling long journeys. The dog and cat quarters are particularly luxurious.
Where will all this lead, I wonder, as I stroke Theo’s well-coiffed fur? Will we continue to see a growing divide between the pet haves and have nots? Will pet parents go even further in treating their fur babies like little people, enrolling them in extracurricular activities? It is easy to find things to criticise about this cultural shift. But now that I have my own pet, what once felt like senseless indulgence seems more reasonable. Blinded by love, I will continue to buy Theo whatever squeaky toy he wants. It is a small price to pay for loyalty.