In a world where it's not uncommon to see pets dressed in the latest fashion trends, or even celebrating birthdays with their own gourmet cakes, it's clear we've entered a new era of pet parenthood. Yet, as we navigate this anthropomorphic trend, we're left wondering: are we pushing it too far?
What is anthropomorphization?
Psychologists refer to our tendency to attribute human characteristics to animals as "anthropomorphism." In a 2008 study by Horowitz, anthropomorphism was identified as one of the primary ways pet owners interpret their dogs' behavior.
While anthropomorphism can enhance our bond with our pets, psychologists and animal behaviorists warn it can also lead to misunderstanding our pets' needs and behaviors. This mismatch can potentially cause undue stress and anxiety in the very companions we pledge to protect.
In our quest to humanize our dogs and cats, we must remember that all pets deserve to be seen, just as they are. Our pets are not miniature humans in fur coats; they're animals with their own unique needs, instincts, and behaviors.
By trying to force our curious copilots into a human framework, we risk overlooking their inherent pet-ness. The whole essence of what makes our pets, well, pets.
The pros of seeing human qualities in pets
While it's important to be mindful of not overdoing it, attributing human-like qualities to pets can actually help strengthen the bond between people and their animal companions. Here are a few potential benefits:
Enhanced Emotional Bond: Anthropomorphizing pets often leads to a deeper emotional bond between humans and their pets. By viewing pets as family members, individuals can experience greater emotional satisfaction and companionship, leading to improved mental health.
Increased Empathy: Anthropomorphizing can lead to increased empathy and understanding towards animals in general. When we attribute human characteristics to pets, we tend to treat them with more kindness and consideration.
Improved Care for Pets: When pet owners anthropomorphize their pets, they often pay more attention to their pets' needs and behaviors. This can lead to improved care, as owners are more likely to notice changes in behavior or health.
Pet Advocacy: Anthropomorphizing pets can make people more likely to advocate for animal rights. If we perceive pets as having human-like thoughts and emotions, we may be more inclined to support legislation and organizations that protect animals.
The pitfalls of taking humanization too far
While there are definite benefits, we must be mindful to keep our pet's inherent needs in mind.
Take diet, for instance. While it might be tempting to indulge your pup's every whim, treating them to french fries and milkshakes too frequently may ultimately harm them in the long run. And while a treat or two every once in a while won't hurt, our love for our pets shouldn't cloud our judgment when it comes to their health and well-being.
Misunderstanding reactive pets is another case where humanizing pets can result in undue stress. Reactivity, in canine terms, typically refers to dogs that overreact to certain stimuli or situations. For these dogs, encounters with other dogs, people, or even particular noises can trigger an extreme response such as barking, lunging, or trying to escape.
Studies suggest that owners often misinterpret signs of stress in pets, meaning our anthropomorphic tendencies could lead us to overlook important cues that our dogs are uncomfortable or anxious.
A dog may not enjoy the human concept of a birthday party, but they may appreciate extra attention from you, a new toy, or a special bone. The idea is to celebrate them in a way that makes sense to them, not necessarily in a way that would make sense to another human.
If we try to apply human social norms to reactive dogs, such as taking them to busy dog parks, bustling parties, or inviting a flurry of guests into our home, it can lead to a distressing situation for them. Forcing our social schedules onto such pets may end up exacerbating their reactive behavior rather than alleviating it.
Pets and the social media spotlight
In an era where internet fame is often sought after, our pets too have found a place in the digital limelight. From Instagram accounts dedicated to showcasing their daily lives to viral TikTok videos, pets are becoming stars in their own right. But while these accounts can be entertaining and heartwarming for us, it's crucial to consider the impact they may have on our pets.
Pets, unlike humans, can't consent to being put in the public eye. They can't understand the concept of social media, and they certainly can't communicate when they've had enough of the camera. While some pets may not mind their newfound fame, others might find the constant attention and the pressures to "perform" for the camera distressing.
As mentioned earlier, pet parents unfortunately can misinterpret or ignore signs of stress in their pets. Applying this to a social media setting, it's possible that in our quest for the perfect photo or video, we might be missing crucial signs that our pet is uncomfortable or anxious.
This isn't to say that every pet-oriented social media account is harmful. But it's a call for mindfulness and a reminder to put our pets' well-being before their potential for likes and shares. It's about ensuring that we're not exploiting our pets for entertainment, but celebrating and sharing the joy that they naturally bring into our lives.
To love our pets is to accept them as they are
With all this being said, it's not about dialing down the love we have for our pets. Rather, it's about ensuring our affection translates into a language they understand.
Our pets aren't here forever, so it's important to make the most of the time you have with them. This means prioritizing their comfort, happiness, and health above all. It means understanding and respecting their individual needs.
We must recognize that our pets aren't here to entertain us or become miniature humans, but to share a mutually beneficial relationship of companionship and respect, and loving them for who they truly are - our pets, our companions, our copilots.
Lizz Caputo is the Manager of Content Strategy at Figo, animal enthusiast, and owner of a rescued senior American Bully. Her hobbies include checking out new restaurants in her area, boxing, and petting dogs of all shapes and sizes.