Are Americans crazy for treating our pets like kids?

8:35 PM, Dec 18, 2011   |    comments
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The shopping frenzy has begun. Sweaters, toys and cushy new beds.

All for "other" family members. The pets.

The season of giving inevitably prompts pet lovers (53% of dog owners and 38% of cat owners) to gift their animals, often lavishly, says a survey by the American Pet Products Association.

It also prompts the question: Is there something, well, weird about that?

According to a Kelton Research survey commissioned by Milo's Kitchen pet treats:

•81% regard their pets as full members of the family.

•58% call themselves their pets' "mommy" or "daddy."

•77% buy pets birthday gifts.

•More than half say they talk about pets more than politics or sex.

Well, grinches, here's what mental health professionals have to say about all this pet-loving goofiness: The blatant puppy love much of America is displaying does not spell the end of society as we know it, and the pet-obsessed are not pathetically off-kilter humans in need of intense therapy.

"What's the harm?" says Stanley Coren, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia and a Psychology Today columnist on human-pet interactions. "Someone may go spend $20 on a rhinestone collar. That's pretty much the worst that will happen."

"Most people recognize, whatever endearments they use or actions they might take, that their pets are not furry humans," he concludes. But emotionally healthy humans have the "need to nurture," and pets are the perfect recipient. They return the favor of all the love, care and baby talk with their innate ability, proven in scientific studies, to reduce stress, speed healing, and improve humans' fitness and social-interaction levels.

It must further be noted, Coren says, that people's relationships with their pets generally have none of the "conflict that probably exists" in their relationships with humans. "Who can't use more of that sometimes?" he adds.

Although many think treating pets as family is brand new, it's centuries old, Coren says. In the 1700s, Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, was deeply devoted to his dogs, and when his greyhound Biche died, he wrote wrenchingly of his heartache: "It is best to be too sensitive than too hard." Playwright Eugene O'Neill didn't get along with his kids but adored his Dalmation Blemie, who had an Hermes raincoat and a four-poster bed. In Julius Caesar's time, women toting small bejeweled dogs about Rome was quite the rage.

"We tend as a society to be very contemporary-centric," believing the current population has invented every pattern of thought and deed, Coren says. The way he sees it, this magnificent obsession "is not a sea change, it's merely a trend."

Treating pets like family is "especially pervasive ... among empty nesters, singles and/or childless, and the homebound," says Waco, Texas, psychologist Julia Becker. Those groups are growing because we're living longer, and also because so many people aren't having children. Her feeling about pet obsessions: "It's fun for the people who do it. There's nothing wrong with it."

Lexington, Ky., teacher Susan Sallee is unapologetic about her affection for her basset hound, Gerdi. She threw a party for Gerdi's first birthday in January, sends her to doggie daycare when she works late, and displays puppy photos at work. "Some people may think that's ridiculous," she says with the lack of defensiveness of a person confident in her choices.

Athough Sallee has a rich, full life, she's warmed by Gerdi's presence. She'll gift her at Christmas - probably new squeaky toys, gourmet holiday doggie cookies and possibly a new bed.

"It's my responsibility," Sallee says, "to give her a good life." And if what Gerdi has is beyond merely a "good life," Sallee sees that as tit for tat. "Gerdi gives so very much."

By Sharon L. Peters, Special for USA TODAY

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