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Monday, April 18, 2016

Parent, Guardian, Or Owner?

I recently read an article on the Veterinary Information Network questioning current terminology such as "pet parent" for those who have animals in their home.  It was something I hadn't given much thought about, but Dr. Chiara Switzer made some interesting points.  VIN is a subscription-only service so I can't link to the full article, but here are some quotes from it.
The terms “pet parent” and “fur baby” that are so in vogue these days bring the division to the fore. Some people love the terms, referring to themselves as the mom or dad of their pet and rejecting the concept of being owners or even caregivers of their beloved animals.
Other people find the term offensive because of its implication that animals would have equal status to human beings, or the suggestion that they are unemotional if they don’t consider their dog or cat to be like their child. The division can intensify if one side tries to impose its philosophy on the other; for example, if people who consider their pets as children criticize as uncaring those who don’t treat their animals as family.
There’s also something that strikes me as rather manipulative about it — when someone tells me that I became a “pet parent” when I got my puppy, it seems to me as if they are trying to define the relationship they think I should have with my dog, rather than the relationship I want to have with my dog (let alone the relationship my dog will choose to have with me, which unfortunately doesn’t always match our plans).
I also wonder if those who call themselves “pet parents” are just using a trendy term, or whether they truly have the same relationship with their pet as they do (or did, or will) with their children. Or do they imagine that’s the relationship they would have had with their children, had they had any? I hope not — I think it does a disservice to animals to treat them like children, and it does a disservice to children to treat them like pets.
Personally, I like the term “guardian.” It implies looking after something living and sentient, specifying my responsibility without specifying an emotional relationship. I do know that I’m not my pet's parent, even though I care for my pup and want to help her to grow up well, happy and safe. My relationship with my pet might change as we each age and grow, but she’ll never be my fur baby and I’ll never be her mom.

I'm old-fashioned enough that I still refer to my clients as "owners".  This is the term that has seen the most use over my lifetime and what I've become accustomed to.  I think that most of my clients are used to that term and don't think about it otherwise.  The term stems from the fact that in the US animals are considered a special form of property, just like if a couch, TV, or car were alive.  For better or worse most laws are based around this issue of pets as property, hence the tendency to say "owners".
But does that really properly classify or define the relationship?  Probably not.  A century ago people looked at dogs and cats more like they did livestock, though there has been a long tradition of keeping them as pets rather than as working animals.  Nowadays people have much different relationships with their pets, letting them sleep in their beds, buying clothing for them, taking them to "day care" and play dates, and otherwise treating them like a special kind of child or part of the family. 

I'll admit that I do that in my own home to some degree.  There are really no limits on where our pets sleep, and we snuggle with them every day.  However, I don't think I'd consider myself a "parent" as I absolutely look at them differently than I do my own children.  As much as I love my pets, I would chose my children over them without hesitation if the need called for it.

I don't know that I personally like the term "guardian", as my relationship with them is more than just that of a caretaker.  I have a truly emotional relationship with my dogs and cats and being simply a guardian seems to take that out of the equation. While Dr. Switzer likes the term because it doesn't define any kind of emotions, I think that those emotions play an important part of having a pet.

But "owner" seems somewhat cold and unemotional as well.  I'm used to the term and will likely continue to use it, but having a pet is more than merely owning them.  I feel a much closer bond to my pets than I do to my laptop, yet I "own" both. 

As I've been writing this I realize that to me none of these terms really properly defines what most people, myself included, feel about their pets.  While I've had some clients that really do treat their pets similar to children, I have others that tell me "it's just a dog".  I don't think that one term really properly encompasses everyone who has a pet, and I don't think the ones we've been using are completely adequate to describing what is happening.

I'm curious as to what you think.  For the first time in years I'm putting up a poll, and will leave it up for the next month.  I'm interested in how my readers define themselves.  I would also love to see comments on this topic, as it's one that hits right in the heart.


  1. I do call my dogs “fur kids” but for me it’s more about defining my roll in their lives. They are 100% reliant on me to fill all their needs (food, medical care and companionship) and they also need me to watch out for them (prevent them from getting themselves into dangerous situations, make sure they don’t play in traffic or stick their paws in the light sockets – lol). To me that sounds a lot like the same care and responsibilities I had when my human child was a toddler. I view my dogs as perpetual toddlers – never able to vocalize their needs or wants but always at the mercy of others to fulfill those needs.

    So while I’d certainly save my human child first if the house was on fire I also believe my dogs have emotions, feeling and in their own way thoughts and desires. They aren’t human but after years observing their behavior I think they may be closer to it than many people would chose to believe.

  2. Interesting post. Thank you for the vet perspective.

    I call myself a pet parent and I call *them* (2 Ragdoll cats and one Yorkie) my "fur-kids." I have human children (albeit grown ones) and believe me, I am well aware of the difference between the two!

    Although I do "get it", the terms "owners" or "guardians" sounds so *impersonal* to me (although of the two, I guess I prefer guardian which at least implies caring and looking out for!) But neither of those words seem to encompass all that those furr-buttz ;-) mean to me.

  3. Very interesting article. I selected "guardian" on your poll as I guess that's what I most closely relate to. Owner does sound too impersonal to me. I have children and definitely see a different relationship there so I don't consider my dogs (2) and cats (2) my fur babies either. They are simply the animal members of our family ... Isabelle, Molly, Zoey and Pete, my dogs and cats whom my family loves dearly.

  4. Owner is the term I use. I agree with nearly all the points in your article-thanks for posting it.

  5. I'm not the owner, they own me. To say I own them makes me laugh out loud. I pet on demand, I feed on demand, I walk on demand, I clean poop and throw-up. So, who owns whom? But, that's okay. My children own me, too. My dogs are my fur kids, they are my family. So, I remain, as always, happily owned by my four legged children. :)

  6. This is tricky. I don't think it should matter so much.

    I have no skin kids, only fur babies. Skin kids are not an option for me. I call myself a "dog mom" but we/they (when I make reference) are a "pack"

    If my husband asks the dogs "Where's mummy?"... Well, look out. I WILL be found stat lol.

    I'm a different kind of dog mom though. I'm a full time dog professional. My life is dogs, dogs, dogs 24/7. What really makes me different though is how I truly pride myself on my ability to care for my packs' needs as dogs. We can't continue to apply so much anthropomorphic nonsense to our dogs.

    That's how we fail them. That's how we trigger anxiety and behavioral issues. That's how we totally mess them up in every way.

    The right thing to do is tend to their needs as dogs, not children. Call yourself what you want. I won't judge anybody for whatever they refer to themselves as so long as they are providing for their dog's canine needs.


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