Are Pets Becoming a Replacement for Children?

Dog owners with kids sometimes joke about their pet being their “baby,” or being the dog's mom. But this is something different.

(photo: “Juno Leaping on Awaji Island” by Ray Larabie, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Thirty-year-old Sara Foster told the New York Post, “I'd rather have a dog over a kid. It’s just less work and, honestly, I have more time to go out.”  

Most young women would've been embarrassed to voice this view a few years back.  Now it seems just another lifestyle choice that our pop culture is applauding.

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University said, “Pets are becoming a replacement for children.” Her research on the “the entitlement generation” has been published in a book called Generation Me.

Apparently it's more than just anecdotal. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention document a considerable decline in babies born to women between the ages of 15 and 29.  A parallel statistic shows an enormous increase in ownership of small dogs among millennial women.

The American Pet Products Association says the number of small dogs — under 25 pounds — in the United States has skyrocketed, from 34.1 million in 2008 to 40.8 million in 2012.  Pampering them is up too. They also found that sales of premium dog food has grown more than 170 percent in the last 15 years, now accounting for 57 percent of the market.  

Dog owners with kids sometimes joke about their pet being their “baby,” or being the dog's mom.  But this is something different.

Professor Twenge isn’t the only expert providing evidence of “puppy parenthood.” Nathan Richter with Wakefield Research says that today some young women put the same focus and devotion into dog ownership as is traditionally put into becoming a mom: preparing, talking to friends, reading books, asking those with experience, buying anything they could possibly need. “That’s how millennials are approaching pet ownership,” he says.

Mary Smith, 25, of Murray Hill, said in the same New York Post article, that her 6-month-old French bulldog, Toliver, brings her as much joy as a baby would. “Dogs are better! Look at Toliver! He’s great, except he snores a lot. He even has his own Instagram,” Smith said during a walk with the pooch. “A dog is easier to transport than a child. It’s less final than having a child.”

So many of us orient our lives around the joy and devotion of having children, so it's difficult to understand the motivation to purposely exclude one of life's greatest blessings. Surely narcissism plays a role. And I wonder, do these intentionally childless women regret their decision later on?

Kristen Wile, senior editor of Charlotte Magazine, recently wrote about originally wanting to be a stay-at-home mom by the time she was 30 to now choosing pets instead. “They give us a greater purpose without making our lives mainly about theirs.” To be sure, this is somewhat stunning self-centered transparency.

Conservative commentator Dennis Prager says there had always been throughout history three social realities driving the birth of children: a lack of contraception, the economic necessity for children to care for parents in old age, and religion. Prager points out that contraception has changed the way couples approach the act of sex; plus government entities like social security and welfare now care for senior citizens so children don’t have to. He believes the decline of the centrality of religion in many American lives today removed one of the main propelling forces for the values inherent in parenthood.

Bradley Mattes of the Life Issues Institute points to an increasing number of women from the millennial generation opting out when it comes to having babies. “Instead,” Mattes continues, “it appears they’re finding an alternative more to their liking.” That “alternative” is what some call “pet parenthood” and its substitute progeny, “fur babies.”  Mattes finds the"self centered transparency" in some young women proudly proclaiming they prefer pets to babies not all that surprising. “It's the logical outcome of the triumph of personal autonomy in the West. We exist for our own benefit and pleasure, as do our children and our pets.” He quoted one “pet parent”:  “Who needs children when research has shown that certain hormones that increase when we cuddle children also increase when we cuddle our pets?”