Pets Replacing Kids? ‘Fur Baby’ Stereotype Hides Truth About the Real Causes of Fertility Decline

Other economic and cultural factors are more significant, according to pro-family experts.

Pope Francis pets a dog at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on Oct. 5, 2016.
Pope Francis pets a dog at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on Oct. 5, 2016. (photo: National Catholic Register / Vatican Media)

Are couples forgoing children for pets one of the primary causes of the world’s demographic winter?

At his Jan. 5 general audience, Pope Francis expressed this perspective — and ended up in the doghouse with pet owners everywhere — when he exhorted couples to embrace the gift of children and even adopt orphans.

“Sometimes they have one [child], and that’s it, but they have dogs and cats that take the place of children,” the Pope said. “This may make people laugh, but it is a reality.”

But contrary to the popularly held stereotype, pet owners “do not tend to have fewer kids,” explained Lyman Stone, research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies (IFS).

“We were not able to find any evidence that having a pet was associated with any decrease in fertility, desires, intentions, outcomes, anything like that,” he told the Register.

Pope Francis’ comments were ultimately “a very shorthand way to refer to his actual deeper concern, which is the values of life.” 

“He’s the Pope, so talking about valuation of life and what people think about life is kind of his job,” Stone said.

But Stone added that pet owners are most likely to be families with children. He shared with the Register an IFS proprietary survey from September of nearly 3,400 women, age 18 to 44, that showed dog owners had 2.4 children, and cat owners had 2.3 children, compared to women without pets having 2.2 children — and if they do not have children yet, pet owners tend to be more open to having them.

“We found people who have a pet have actually slightly higher fertility desires than other people, on average,” he said, pointing out that pet owners often get animals for the sake of children. 

However, Stone said that people who value animal life over human life in surveys do have less desire for children, or even anti-natal sentiments. But these people are also the least likely to be pet owners and form a “quite small minority of the population.”

Stone said pet ownership is not in the top 10 reasons people are forgoing children. Inasmuch as pets fit in with a story of fertility decline, the rise of “fur babies” is just one small symptom of couples around the world not having the children they would like. 

Instead, cultural attitudes on the priority of having a family have shifted, and massive economic changes are driving down fertility rates even further by forcing would-be parents to have less children than they would like or to delay or even forgo children altogether.

“In the last 15 years, we’ve seen a really sharp fertility decline in a lot of countries that is way too fast and way too big to explain through changes in values,” he said. “We have surveys of values, and while they change, they don’t change that fast.”

Stone said economic changes have played a significant role, drying up family-wage blue-collar jobs, requiring more advanced or continuing education to maintain a standard of living, and preventing recent graduates from jumping directly from their degree into stable work.

“We’re seeing a rapid shift towards a sense that you have to jump through a lot more hoops before you’re stable,” he said. “And the more hoops you make young people have to jump through before they feel stable, the less kids they’re going to have, as they’re going to push fertility later.”

On top of this, Stone added, “Increasingly, having children is prohibitively costly and difficult.” While pets are expensive, he said, “they’re cheaper than kids.”

 

Fewer Marriages, Fewer Kids

U.S. Census data shows that the percentage of U.S. households that are headed by married parents with children is now a record low: 17.8% in 2021, down from 40% in 1970, as reported by Bloomberg. The Pew Research Center also found 44% of childless adults between 18 and 49 say it’s “not too likely, or not at all likely” they will have children — an increase of 7 points since 2018. 

Brad Wilcox, executive director of the National Marriage Project (NMP) at the University of Virginia, told the Register that most demographic surveys show U.S. women want “two or more kids,” but the fertility rate is 1.6 children per woman, which is far below desired expectations and what a country needs for stable population replacement.  

“I would attribute that in part to people not marrying in their 20s, when they have higher opportunities to get pregnant,” he said. 

According to NMP’s 2022 “State of Our Unions” report, the median age of first marriage is 30 for men and 28 for women. The report pointed to survey data that showed 70%-80% of millennials age 18 to 33 supported marrying later, on the basis that “both people will be more mature, more likely to be good spouses, more likely to have achieved personal goals so that they will have no regrets after getting married, and will have had more time to get personal finances in order.” 

One of the effects the NMP report found, however, is that this logic “can make marriage seem beyond the reach of many young people, making it more of a Hollywood fantasy than a powerful script for building a good life.”

Wilcox explained part of addressing that challenge is far more positive messaging about making marriage the cornerstone of a good life and that parenthood is deeply fulfilling.

 “Married people with kids are the most likely to report their lives are meaningful, not lonely, and happy,” he said.

Part of the story is changing cultural norms and values. Stone said people are putting off having children due to the cultural message that they should prioritize other things in life in their 20s and then have children later. 

But Stone explained it is men, more than women, who are driving down fertility by finding fulfillment outside family life. 

“Men who said that work was more important than family had even more negative impacts on their likely number of children to have than women saying the same thing,” he said.

 

A One-Two Punch

But Wilcox said prospective parents who desire two or more children also feel those goals are beyond their reach due to increased financial burdens, such as the rising costs of raising children, education and housing. 

“There are more pets in San Francisco than there are children,” Wilcox said. But Wilcox said the example shows why more couples are seen treating pets like the children they can’t have in metro areas. 

While San Francisco attracts many millennials working in technology, a local report showed the city is not more dog-friendly than cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma, but is hostile to those same millennials having the children they want. 

While San Francisco is relatively richer than other parts of the country — the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent median household income in San Francisco is $112,449 — the cost of living is higher, and housing for growing families is out of reach. The 2021 median home price was $1.5 million, more than double what it was 10 years ago, and 61% of new housing is studio and one-bedroom apartments. 

Changing cultural priorities on family life combined with increased economic anxieties are delivering a “one-two punch” to knock out family formation, explained Stone.

A cultural norm of family prioritization, as prevailed in earlier generations, Stone explained, might help people embrace the challenges of children. But as Stone explained, the modern economic system is actually reinforcing these changing cultural priorities by encouraging workers that lack the economic resources to form families to find fulfillment through the workplace instead. 

“That is: You can get your meaning from working for the boss instead of having kids,” he said. Stone added it is a far cry from the Catholic economic vision, which states that “workers should have access to sufficient resources to guarantee the autonomy of their family.”

 

Situations and Solutions

Patrick Brown, a fellow in family policy at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told the Register that Catholics looking at this issue have to recognize that the challenges to marriage and having children are hitting people at different income levels differently. The solutions for a “parenthood renaissance,” therefore, also have to take this into account. 

For instance, Brown said low-income persons face stiff marriage penalties that discourage them from getting married because they will end up losing benefits like food or health care they rely upon to care for themselves or dependents. In many cases, the tax code penalizes single parents on government support who choose to marry the father or mother of their children. As a result, government policy often keeps low-income families in unstable families. Brown said 14 states have policies on the books threatening to remove benefits if they have another child beyond certain thresholds. 

“That’s as anti-natal as it gets,” he said.

Working-class families, Brown said, face real economic pressures in the decision to have a child.

“Having children has become perceived to be more expensive,” Brown said.

Brown said the evidence shows one-time benefits, like “baby bonuses” to have kids, as tried in Hungry, Poland and France, largely have marginal impact. What makes a greater impact is making family life more affordable.

“The most basic way of supporting families is saying, ‘We’re going to make it easier for you to make ends meet and to afford family life,’” he said, and it makes a difference in having children at that level. 

However, he said the fundamental problem is “reorienting our policy lens” that investing in family is important. Brown pointed to five solutions, which include providing more generous direct support to families in the tax code.

One version advanced is the extended, fully refundable Child Tax Credit advocated by President Joe Biden, which recently expired and provided monthly installments to parents. Congress has yet to renew the program. 

Another proposal, advanced by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, would provide monthly assistance (even starting in the third trimester before birth) to parents through the Social Security Administration.

Brown pointed also toward other measures, such as reducing the cost of living in housing and health care, expanding educational access via vouchers, eradicating marriage penalties, and supporting families against external threats like sexually explicit material in K-12 classrooms and youth access to online pornography.

“Having a kid is individually costly but very socially beneficial,” Brown said. “So thinking about investing in families as a sort of investment in society and recognizing the hard work that the parents do is the right way to think about that.”

Brown added, among higher-income people where the mindset is often prioritizing values instead of economic factors are at play, such as the view that a career, travel or educational pursuits should take priority over children, “that’s a cultural problem.” 

“That is a conversation the Church to have, and that’s what the Pope was getting at,” Brown said. “That’s where the Church needs to be stepping in and saying, ‘What are we actually put on this Earth for?’”

This story was updated after posting.