- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
This article is the second in a series about the growing “humanization” of pets. For the first installment, Jen Chesak reported on pets and consent.
We lost Fiver, our 11-year-old Schipperke, about nine months ago to a congenital heart defect. The void in our home ever since has been cavernous. And I think part of the reason, aside from our immense love for the little guy, was the way we’d created a persona of him that was larger than life.
My husband, Jereme, and I not only talked to Fiver, we often spoke to each other through him—as a joke. Usually, we were trying to get away with saying outlandish things, like if we wanted to make a snarky remark about the other person’s cooking or outfit. Our antics made for a lot of laughter. I once told my friend, Sara, about how we behaved and that other people might think we’d gone bonkers. But she just laughed and said, “Oh, we talk through Magoo, too.”
Giving human characteristics and emotions to pets is called anthropomorphism; sometimes it’s called personification or humanization. However you say it, it’s a way of talking about pets that’s more commonplace these days than ever before.
Once widely considered personal property, pets are now understood by many to have distinct personalities—some even have designer clothes, health insurance, at-home meal delivery, organic bedding, or (sometimes and) millions of social followers.
“Nowadays, pets are considered as family members,” says Iram Sharma, DVM, and owner of PupVine, a website about dogs.
But, what does it mean when we personify our pets, when we consider them to be “human,” when we give them gendered—human—pronouns? What about the ways pets and animals appear in our everyday expressions and idioms—what agency does that offer them in our human-centered world?
Here, we dive into these questions and considerations surrounding pet parenting.
What Pronouns Should We Use for Pets?
On some occasions, we’ve had people in our home who have never had a pet, and they’ve referred to Fiver as an “it,” saying something like, “Does it need to go outside?” Because of our deep connection with Fiver, that phrasing felt weird in our ears.
But you might have pondered about pronoun usage for your pet. Should you use “it”? What about “who”? When it comes to language surrounding humans, there’s a growing awareness for ensuring the use of people’s identifying pronouns, such as she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/theirs. But how should we talk or write about our pets? Does it matter?
I am a copyeditor and teach editing at the university level, so I’ve consulted the journalism bible on this one: the AP Stylebook. It recommends not applying a personal pronoun to an animal unless you know the sex or name. If you don’t know, then AP recommends using “it.” (Editor’s note: Rover recognizes the AP rule regarding pets and pronouns, but does not practice it. To communicate the importance of pets in our lives, pets are personified on the blog.)
Personifying pets in our language reflects the way we tend to think of pets as family members. It also ties in with the increasing knowledge we have about pets, namely that they are sentient beings with feelings.
Of course, how you refer to your pet is up to you. “I think it’s perfectly fine to use ‘she’ or ‘he’ for pets, instead of ‘it,’” says author Zazie Todd, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in pet behavior. “In part it reflects the way we tend to think of pets as family members. But I think it also ties in with the increasing knowledge we have about pets, namely that they are sentient beings with feelings.” In other words, we tend to differentiate from our beloved dog or cat and an inanimate object like a lamp.
“There was some research that looked at a very large data set of the pronouns used to refer to animals,” Todd adds. “The results showed that using ‘who’ instead of ‘it’ was related to a feeling of closeness to the animal or feeling sympathetic towards them.”
As far as I’m concerned, any future dog we have will definitely be a “who”—never an “it.”
Is It OK to Anthropomorphize Pets?
Having a special connection with your pet is a good thing for you and for your dog’s or cat’s well-being. Anthropomorphizing your pet can strengthen your human-animal bond and increase your empathy towards your pet and other animals, according to a 2021 research article in the journal, Animals.
Humans are biophilic, meaning we have an innate tendency to connect with nature, including animals. We’re more likely to anthropomorphize creatures that look and act like humans. (Sorry, not-so-cute spider.) Our pets, especially dogs and cats, often have childlike behaviors and appearances, even some facial expressions. Besides, what animal lover’s heart hasn’t been slayed by a pair of puppy-dog eyes?
Anthropomorphizing your pet comes naturally for most pet parents. “However, some people cross the line,” Sharma says. “That’s why it’s best to be somewhere in the middle and do your best for your pet.”
The biggest problem is thinking that your pet’s biological and physical needs are the same as yours—they’re not. Researchers stress, pets aren’t people.
What’s crossing the line? Well, the biggest problem is thinking that your pet’s biological and physical needs are the same as yours. This is where humanization can be harmful to pets, who, researchers stress, aren’t people.
Some anthropomorphizing behaviors can cause harm to pets, researchers say. But there are exceptions within these examples.
Clothing and shoes
Lots of people dress their pets, but researchers say most pets really don’t need to be wearing clothes. For the most part, your dog’s skin and hair offers protection, helps with temperature regulation, and provides sensorial perception. Your veterinarian may recommend clothing for certain reasons, however, such as:
- A ThunderShirt to reduce anxiety during storms
- Clothing for extreme cold or another health reason, such as a post-surgery suit
- A personal flotation device for pets on or near the water
- Booties for sled dogs on long hauls like the Iditarod, or for dogs in cities with de-icing chemicals or salt on city sidewalks (as our vet once recommended for Fiver)
Can you dress your pet up for fun, though? I have to admit that Baylee, my in-law’s dog, looks fabulous in her cute kerchief at Christmas. She wears it temporarily and it doesn’t seem to bother her. So why not? Just be mindful of duration and your pet’s reaction.
Obviously, our pets are perfect just they way they are. They don’t need makeup or perfume (maybe just a bath every now and then). Dyes, nail polish, scented hygiene products, and even essential oils can all cause allergic reactions or injury to fur and skin. And some scented products can interfere with your pet’s sense of smell, which they use for information and communication, the latter especially with other animals.
Purses and strollers
Some vets may recommend a stroller or wagon to help a senior pet with a mobility issue, but an average healthy pet is at risk of future mobility issues if their movement is restricted all the time in a stroller or handbag. Movement restriction occurs when people carry their pets everywhere, force lap sitting, or constantly place them in purses, baby strollers, etc. This can impact your pet’s ability to build and maintain healthy bones, joints, and muscle.
Of course, we can all think of reasons when a carrier is necessary—most kinds of travel comes to mind. In many places, you have to have your pet contained on public transit, for example (even if your cat is better-behaved than some of the other passengers). Also, I love seeing dogs livin’ it up in those bike trailers, weather permitting of course.
Junk foods, candy, and other ultra-processed items, plus some fruits and veggies in the human diet, aren’t safe for our pets. Certain human foods can lead to malnutrition, obesity, skin issues, osteoarthritis, immune system concerns, and more. And some are toxic and dangerous. Your veterinarian can recommend a suitable diet for your pet’s age, breed, and any special health concerns.
Researchers also say that thinking our pets are acting in human ways can lead us to misinterpret their behavior and respond negatively, such as with punishment. For example, they say pets don’t act out of spite or guilt. Fiver once nibbled the corner of my cork yoga block, for example, but I know he wasn’t mad that I was hanging out in my downward dog rather than playing with my top dog.
Animals and Pets in Everyday Speech
Often when we talk about animals and pets, it’s through idioms—peculiar expressions like, “it’s raining cats and dogs” or ” “kill two birds with one stone.” These expressions do not have a literal meaning, though they often mention animals either in a harmful or exploitative way. For example, take the phrase “it’s like herding cats.”
“It ties into a stereotype of cats as untrainable and hard to control,” Todd says. “But, of course, you can train a cat, and in fact it’s a good idea to do so.”
As we consider the meaning and weight of our words in the human realm, one interesting “humanization” trend is that the same consideration is now being extended to pets and animals. There is an interesting list of animal-friendly idioms that went viral a few years ago encouraging people to swap idioms that have animal imagery for different ones. For example, “let the cat out of the bag” becomes “spill the beans.” Both mean to reveal a secret or disclose information. “More than one way to skin a cat” becomes “more than one way to peel a potato.” “Beat a dead horse” becomes “feed a fed horse.”
In some cases, we may wish to keep certain animal idioms in play, says Todd. “When something is ‘the cat’s whiskers,’ it means it’s a very good thing, and that phrase is much more flattering towards cats.”
A Complex, Meaningful, and Evolving Relationship
As the human-animal bond deepens and we learn more about our pets, we continue to discover new ways to relate to and care for our companion animals. While our pets may not be people, the more consideration we give to how we talk about and treat our dogs and cats, the more we grow in our understanding about their roles in our lives, and us in theirs.
As for Fiver, I’d say that he was the cat’s whiskers, but somehow, I don’t think he’d appreciate that term. Indeed, he was a very good boy, despite all the times “he” made snarky remarks about my outfits and what have you. Your wit is much missed around here, old boy.