If you’re here reading this, then it’s probably because you’re an animal person, which means you probably already had this question answered in your head. Most people who own pets would enthusiastically answer, “absolutely!” when asked if their pets are a part of the family. Science doesn’t usually care about our feelings, though, and the scientific community’s opinions on this matter have grown and changed throughout the years. If you’ve ever wondered if science backs your feeling that your pet is part of your family, here’s what you need to know.
Are Pets Part of the Family?
You’ll be pleased to know that the answer to this question is generally a resounding yes. In 2021, an SMU sociologist by the name of Andrea Laurent-Simpson released a book titled Just Like Family: How Companion Animals Joined the Household. In this book, Laurent-Simpson explores the changing and growing family structure within American households, including the addition of non-human household members, like dogs, cats, and reptiles, to our definitions of our families.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), 76% of cat owners and 85% of dog owners consider their furry companions to be members of the family. Laurent-Simpson’s book seeks to explore the importance of this changing family structure and how it impacts everything from human reproductive trends to our interactions with other humans in our families.
The increased sales of higher-quality pet products also speaks volumes about how much humans value their pets. For example, pet supplement sales catapulted to 1.47 billion in 2020 and are predicted to continue rising. Many believe that the drive for pet supplements is due to the humanization of animals, which is in line with our view of our pets as integral parts of the family. The same goes for those pet owners choosing to pay more for organic pet food, a trend that has totaled $22.8 billion in sales in 2020.
The Legal Implications of Viewing Pets as Family
In recent years, some legislators have been working toward changing how pets are viewed under our legal system. This extends beyond what you usually hear about “animal rights”, though. When laws regarding divorces and the splitting of property were put into place, very few people viewed pets as family members. This meant that dogs, cats, and other pets often fell under the “property” umbrella.
However, as our view of our pets has changed, more and more people have been facing custody battles involving pets. Just like with children, many people are unwilling to fully split with their pets due to a relationship split. This has led to some people spending thousands of dollars across years to get legal custody or visitation rights with their pets.
If the laws regarding the view of pets during divorces change, then more and more people may begin having shared custody and visitation arrangements pertaining to pets. For child-free families, the option to share custody of their pets may be the most important part of divorce proceedings.
Do Pets Consider Us Family?
Unfortunately, there’s not a straightforward answer to this question because it varies notably depending on the type of pet and each individual pet. For example, some pets, like fish, may not be able to understand the complexities of family or even relationships in general. While your goldfish or betta fish may seem excited to see you, it’s likely because it recognizes you as the bearer of food and not because it recognizes you as a member of its family. However, your dog or cat is perfectly capable of viewing you as a member of its family, pack, or social circle.
If you have a feral cat you’ve brought into your home, it’s more likely that this pet views you more as someone or something it interacts with in passing that offers it food. But an animal you’re bonded with is more likely to view you with affection and a sense of family.
Do Our Pets Understand Us?
Once again, it depends. If you’re talking about dogs and cats, though, then they probably do understand you a lot of the time. Studies have shown that cats are able to understand their own name and learn commands, tricks, and rules. Other studies have shown that dogs aren’t just able to pick up on our emotions and communications, but they are hardwired to detect them, thanks to approximately 20,000–30,000 years of selective breeding.
Dogs and cats may not understand human language, to the extent we typically think they do, but they are able to learn associations between sounds and outcomes. For example, your dog understands that when you say “sit” they get a treat, or when you call your cat by its name, it gets petted.
Science has proven on multiple fronts that pets are an important part of our perceived family unit. Not all people view their pets as family, but the majority of Americans do. This has had some seen and some yet-to-be-seen implications on our societal views of animals, animal rights, and the family unit as a whole.
As more people have chosen to remain childless, more people are viewing their pets as children and grandchildren. It’s important to understand that as our society continues to change and our scientific understanding of animals grows and improves, we may continue to see more and more people viewing pets as a member of the family.
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