Americans have fallen in love with their dogs. We have dog walkers, dog groomers, dog parks and dog-friendly hotels. We buy organic dog food, put our pets on puppy Prozac and dress them up in costumes for Halloween. In the last 15 years, the amount of money spent on pets in the U.S. jumped from $17 billion to $43 billion. The role of dogs has changed, and journalist Michael Schaffer decided to find out why. Schaffer talks to TIME about his new book, One Nation Under Dog, and what he has discovered about our sudden need to treat our pets like children. (See pictures of a real-life hotel for dogs.)
How did you get interested in the topic?
Well, I got a dog. When my wife and I adopted him we vowed never to dress him in outfits or treat him like our child. But our dog turned out to have separation anxiety. He had come from a shelter and was very nervous and when we left the house. He'd bark all the time and our neighbors hated it. So we went to the vet and he said, "Oh yeah, he has separation anxiety. There's a pill for that." My family thought this was the most incredible thing. Some of them have dogs and they looked at us as if we were these ridiculous, overindulgent spendthrifts. To me this said something. Sometime between when they had pets and now the definition of "normal" had changed pretty rapidly. When normal changes that fast it means something interesting is going on.
What do you think that our attachments to our pets say about our society?
I was continually amazed by how you can find so many controversies, obsessions and trends of our society that played out in the world of pets. For example, pet food has changed in a lot of the same ways that human food has changed towards healthy, organic stuff and pet-training has become as common as sending your kid to driver's ed. There are these huge philosophical battles over whether dog-training should be done in an authoritarian way or a soft rewarding-good-behavior sort of way that mirrors the culture wars in politics. (See pictures of Presidential First Dogs.)
You write in your book that a larger number of single people and childless couples have pets than ever before. Why is that?
In the last 30 to 40 years, two-career couples have become the norm. People are marrying later and divorcing more frequently. They work longer hours than they ever had before and they have longer commutes. The number of pets started to boom right around the same time that these trends began to take off. This suggests that people are leaning on pets to fill the gap in social support mechanisms that earlier might have come from their families or tight-knit neighborhoods. This is why single people or childless couples might want to get a pet. There's just a lot more of those folks right now and they have the wherewithal financially to do so. In turn they've sort of spurred a whole industry of dog walkers and pet sitters because if you don't have a homemaker who is home with the dog all day, you need help caring for your dog. (See more at PeoplePets.com.)
Have our lifestyles changed our dogs' lifestyles?
The fact that our time away from home over the last generation has increased so much definitely changes things. There has been this incredible creativity in designing chew toys for dogs. They have these elaborate toys with hidden treats inside of them, and the dog has to figure out how to reach them. It's like a Baby Einstein toy but for a dog. The goal is not just to get the dog to chew on something, but to occupy its physical and mental energy during your very long absence.
What was the most surprising aspect of the pet industry that you discovered?
I went to a pet-loss bereavement group. It was conducted by a full-time employed veterinary social worker who worked in a veterinary hospital. First of all, I was amazed that profession even existed, and then I found out that she went to a conference with fellow veterinary social workers, so there must be a lot of them out there. I sat in on a meeting and I have to admit that I had my moments of thinking, "Oh boy, these people really need to get a life." But for the most part, the meetings were very moving. These people were devastated. As a magazine and newspaper reporter I covered wars and murders, and yet still I was pretty affected by the grief that the people in that room felt, the attachments they had to their animals and the sense of loss that they endured.
You talked a bit about commercial dog-breeding and puppy mills. If you walk into a pet store, what is the chance that you're going to encounter dogs from a puppy mill?
Very high. Reputable breeders wont sell to pet stores. The thing to remember is that puppy mills aren't illegal. The term refers to mass breeding facilities and that is perfectly legal. Mass breeders typically sell to pet stores.
Have people stopped pampering their pets now that we're in a recession?
There are two things going on right now. First, when it comes to decisions about money and pets, the number of people who don't have a choice increases. People's houses get foreclosed and they have to rent somewhere and the landlord doesn't take pets well, they don't have a choice anymore. Similarly, at vet hospitals when the vet says, "Listen we can do this procedure that might save your animal but it will cost $8,000." More people are saying, "Well I don't have $8,000." But for people who do still have a choice, you're seeing a willingness to scrimp and save for themselves before they demote their animals. Over the last generation a lot of people have promoted their pets to the status of honorary child they call them "Fur babies."
Is it just me or is everyone giving their dog a human name?
There's a list of the most common names among policy-holders for pet insurance and the most popular dog names are Jake and Chloe and Bella they're very similar to the names in my daughter's preschool. They're not the kind of names you'd find in dog cartoons. There are no Spots or Fidos. I think that speaks to what's going on and how we view pets as a part of the family. If you look at older descriptions of dogs on headstones at pet cemeteries, they say things like, "Here lies Fido, a loyal servant." By the mid-20th century it's, "Here lies Fido, my best friend." And nowadays you can go to online tributes to deceased pets and people write things like "Here is Jake, my baby."
Does this over-pampering apply to other pets as well?
Most of the creativity has mostly been towards dogs because they have more variables. Going out in public is a big thing; people with cats don't really do that. So that's why there is a lot more action in the dog-accessories market, but I think it applies across the spectrum. I don't know that any of this speaks badly of us. What we now consider normal all-natural pet food, expensive veterinary procedures was just a little while ago considered as excessive and silly as dressing your dog up in a little tuxedo. The first professional journal for feline medicine was only established in the late 1960s. Before that if you went to vet school they didn't teach you about cats, really. Now 40 years later we're doing feline kidney transplants. So the measure of what is ridiculous is a very moving target. And it tends to be moving in one direction, which is up.