Contrarian: Reigning Cats and Dogs

We now treat Fido and Mittens like they’re our kids — scratch that. They’re much more important than mere children

I LIKE MY CAT, AND WE HAVE AN UNDERSTANDING. I provide her with food and handle the living arrangements, and she occasionally brings in mice from the backyard. I don’t discourage her from bringing the mice, because she’s an animal and that’s what she does, and in the event of a nuclear winter it would become a very necessary skill. Of course, in the event of a nuclear winter, she’d probably be smart enough to eat the mice herself, which would make her essentially useless to me, so perhaps she would wind up in my Coleman Nuclear Winter Stewpot.

That’s our relationship, based on hundreds of generations of human-pet relationships. People started domesticating animals because they provided a service. Cats would keep mice out of the grain supply, and dogs would help with hunting and herding, and either could be used as emergency rations in the event of crop failure. It was a relationship that benefited all species involved — unless there was crop failure. Fortunately, there have been few enough of them that this relationship has survived until today.

But in the past 10 years, the modern incarnation of the human-pet relationship has developed a new twist. Instead of accepting that we’re all animals, pet owners have decided that we’re all human. Consider that the National Geographic Channel now has a top-rated show, Dog Whisperer, that features a dog expert going to people’s houses to deal with their dog behavioral problems. The show invariably comes to the same conclusion on every visit: You have to treat your dog like a dog. Apparently, these pet owners have forgotten that salient fact, and they are stunned by it. Of course! Don’t let the dog sit at the table! Don’t let him attack the children, even playfully! What genius! As the dog runs around the house in a jewel-encrusted collar, whacked on Prozac, his owners have decided he’s a functioning member of society, and when his comparatively small dog brain causes him to commit actions that indicate otherwise, they call in an expert to “correct” the problem.

Businesses have sprung up all over the Philadelphia area that sell clothes, jewelry, baked goods, psychic and spiritual advice, holistic medical treatments and high-end funeral services for … animals. Yes, animals. From Bonejour to Chic Petique to any number of corporate and online outlets, pet products have become available to Philadelphians in an abundance unimaginable a mere 10 years ago. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, we spent a stunning $38.4 billion on our pets last year — more than double what we laid out in 1994. For this massive increase to be possible, it was first necessary for advertisers to create a subtle psychological shift in how we view our pets, portraying their needs and human needs as similar. It was a master coup of advertising, but one which has had some serious side effects.