I recently read a blog by an individual stating that as a parent, she disliked the phrase “pet parent” and prefers the traditional term “owner.” As someone for whom “pet parent” is a regular part of her vocabulary, I felt the need to defend this, the phrase I use so frequently to describe those of us who have taken the initiative and responsibility to provide a dog with a great home.
I know “owner” is the conventional term. To me, it’s too cold. I own gloves, scarves, a home, a vehicle, crates, pictures, an iPod, many good books, about 37 clickers, furniture, and a killer pair of leopard wedges. For the most part, once these things are paid for, ownership is a fairly passive process. I don’t consider these things emotionally fulfilling, they’re just things I have. I don’t feel like I owe my scarf, home, or iPod anything.
It’s different with dogs. I think the term “owner” fails to get at the point of what pet ownership is all about – connection, reinforcement, responsibility, relationships. I think you can “own” something but that you cannot own “someone” no matter how many legs someone has. For as long as dogs are considered “property,” they are less likely to be protected by our laws as members of our family, a sentiment I’d venture that a majority of dog owners feel about their animal companions.
When I use the term “pet parent,” I am not implying that myself or anyone I refer to in such a manner actually gave birth to their companion animal. I am not implying that my connection with my dogs is in any way equal to your relationship with your children or trying to belittle the relationship a parent has with a human child, by any means. I am, however, trying to raise the societal expectations of pet “owners,” imply that raising a dog, like raising a human child, is not an endeavor to be taken lightly and requires hard work and sometimes, sacrifice, and to differentiate the relationship I have with my dogs from the relationship I have with inanimate objects.
Parenting implies responsibility. To me, rearing my pets includes the following responsibilities, among others:
- providing the best possible diet I can
- making their needs a priority – sometimes I have to sacrifice financially or otherwise to ensure their needs are met to the best of my ability
- getting up in the middle of the night for potty breaks if needed
- providing them with an excellent education – training is extremely important to me and I think all dogs need to learn, be challenged, and that creativity should be encouraged in all canines.
- providing them with adequate and appropriate social opportunities
- cleaning up pee, poop, and occasionally, puke
- provide safe living environment
- play games with, help practice for sports/competition
- celebrate/take pride in/reinforce accomplishment
Cell phones, lampshades, bookshelves, wine glasses, a rocking chair or rubbish bin don’t require such a significant investment of effort, time, commitment, or emotion. A wicker basket provides little emotional support on bad days or through life’s greatest crises. A hair dryer is not excited to see you return home at the end of a work day, and very rarely has my nail file made me laugh until tears rolled down my face. I’ve never been proud of my bureau, applauded the sink, bragged about the achievements of a notebook. When a candle burns out, I have never grieved and mourned with a pain so intense I felt my ribs would shatter with the weight of it. I have never felt so moved by a measuring cup that I couldn’t help but write a story or poem about it.
Perhaps “pet parent” isn’t the perfect phrase. Perhaps some find it offensive. Nonetheless, I can’t think of a better alternative which more accurately describes what I feel are the obligations (and privileges) that come along with bringing a dog into your home. Caretaker? Guardian? These still, to me, still minimize the emotional component of the relationship I have with my dogs. I’ll keep brainstorming to see if I can come up with a more politically correct description of pet parents/owners/guardians/caretakers, but until then, I think I’ll stick with pet parent. My dogs are not children, but they are sentient beings with preferences, desires, emotions, and talents that I feel are belittled by the generic term pet owner. Most of all, my dogs are not appliances, furniture, or accessories, they are integral parts of my family. Any phrase which indicates less then that is, I believe, doing them a disservice.