Paul Tuns:

Pope Francis created a bit of a stir after he briefly commented about people who have pets instead of children. It was two sentences in a longer address on Jan. 5 about adoption and predictably the media reaction missed the forest for the trees.

CNN ran a column by Alistair Currie who complained, “The Pope’s suggestion that failing to have children is selfish is far from the truth,” because “for those of us living in countries with a large environmental footprint, the choice to have a small family, or no human family at all, is one that helps everyone — particularly children.”

The National Post ran two columns complaining about the Pope’s comments. Sabrina Maddeaux took umbrage at his criticism of “millennials” – those 20-40 years old – as she came to the defense of young adults: “It strikes me as difficult, if not near impossible, to take stock of the world today and think, ‘Gee! What a marvellous environment to bring new life into’!” Tyler Dawson said. “Pope Francis has come for the pet people, saying they’re selfish.”

Pope Francis did not call pet owners selfish, nor did he single out millennials, or any cohort.

The pontiff said: “Many, many couples do not have children, because they do not want to, or they have just one (child) but they have two dogs, two cats. Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children. Yes, it’s funny, I understand, but it is the reality. And this denial of fatherhood and motherhood diminishes us, it takes us away from our humanity.”

There is a fair bit of data to support the Pope’s implicit criticism, and he is hardly the first to observe the phenomenon.

In 2016, the Washington Post reported that “Young Americans are less likely to be homeowners, car owners or parents than their predecessors, but they do lead in one category: Pets.” Three quarters of Americans in their 30s have a dog and 51 per cent have a cat, compared to about half of the population that has a dog and 35 per cent that have a cat. And millennials are half as likely to be married or living with a partner than similarly aged Americans were 50 years ago.

Michael Hendrix of the Manhattan said in a 2019 City Journal article, “In the absence of kids, a dog or cat serves as something like a starter family. Young Americans dote on their pets with the care once reserved for children.” Hendrix observed how dog owners are increasingly acting like parents: “The dogs’ owners hover nearby like watchful parents who, when playtime ends, head over to the nearby farmers’ market or go out for brunch. Later in the day, they might make time for doggie yoga or the pet bakery before coming home to their pet-friendly apartment building, many featuring dog baths and groomers.” 

Hendrix noted that in America’s largest cities there are more pets than children. San Francisco, for example, has 150,000 registered dogs but only 115,000 children under the age of 18. Seattle has more households with cats than with children. In New York, the number of households with dogs exceeds the number with children. As the “share of children under 20 living in big cities as been falling for 40 years,” and “childless cities are becoming the norm,” Hendrix reported, pet ownership has increased.  He warned that the U.S. will have to “reckon with” the increasing popularity of dogs and cats and “attendant decline in children” in urban America. Singles represent 28 per cent of U.S. households, up from 13 per cent in 1960.

In 2016, Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me, told the Washington Post, “Pets are becoming a replacement for children … They’re less expensive. You can get one even if you’re not ready to live with someone or get married, and they can still provide companionship.”

Amanda Mull wrote in The Atlantic last September that millennials, “who are most likely to delay marriage, parenthood, and homeownership beyond the timelines set by previous generations,” are the demographic cohort most likely to own a pet, with more than half of them having a dog; the pet ownership rates are even a higher percentage of those with a college education and stable income. Mull said, “Dogs, long practical partners in rural life or playmates for affluent children, have become a life stage unto themselves.” Mull offered several possible explanations for the trend: “a dog can be many things: a dry run for parenthood, a way of putting down roots when traditional milestones feel out of reach, an enthusiastic housemate for people likely to spend stretches of their 20s and 30s living alone.”

The Manhattan Institute’s Hendrix agrees: “A millennial’s first pet is considered a major milestone.” The question – perhaps too early to say, but precisely what Pope Francis is warning about – is whether a generation that views pets as children, might see them as a substitute for children.

Mull also said, “People without kids adopt pets not only as a dry run for eventual children but for lots of other reasons, too, including as an outlet for caring impulses that have nothing to do with parenthood. They also lavish their dogs with privileges that, in America, have historically been reserved for other people: Dogs now sleep in the same bed as their humans at night; they have birthday parties; they go see their friends at day care.”

A recent Mara/Blue poll sponsored by Pawzy found 72 per cent of Canadian households without children have pets compared to 52 per cent of those with children. More than half (54 per cent of) women and millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) say they “love and treat” their pets like children, and the percentage of those who call themselves “pet parents” increases with each generation: Gen X (47 per cent) and Baby Boomers (44 per cent). The poll also found that 95 per cent of Canadian pet owners consider pets part of the family. Pet ownership increases with household income. 

People reported last year that a OnePoll survey found that 42 per cent of U.S. pet owners – which the magazine called “pet parents” – “look at their cat or dog as a ‘starter child’,” and 61 per cent of owners said they “consider their pet to be their child.” The survey found that many owners treat their pets like children with 41 per cent celebrating Mother’s Day or Father’s Day with their pet, 36 per cent buying their pets holiday presents, 29 per cent throwing their pets birthday parties, 27 per cent buy clothes for them. 24 per cent of owners wearing matching outfits with their pets, and 21 per cent watching television together. More than half (52 per cent) say they “spend quality time” with their pets and nearly half (46 per cent) have created a social media account for their pets.

People reported, “The lines between human child and pet are so blurred that 35 per cent of parents admit they’ve called their child by their pet’s name — and of those, they do so an average of 17 times per month.” Nearly six in ten respondents said they “want to take the best possible care of their pet since they’re a part of the family.”

Lindsey Rabaut, vice president of marketing at the pet food brand “I and love and you,” which sponsored the OnePoll survey, said, “Pets are people too, and our families wouldn’t be the same without our furry counterparts,” adding, “Whether it’s a fur or human baby, parenting is one of the toughest jobs there is.” Rabaut also said, “Our pets are a piece of us; it’s a reciprocal love, and along with that deep bond comes worry in addition to all the love and care.”