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Going to the dogs

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An eagle-eyed friend of mine recently caught a headline describing a “canine-inspired lifestyle.”

It was a revelatory moment, for it seemed to capture the increasingly pet-centric world we live in. Chalk this up as one more example of “first world problems,” but our pets are getting better treatment than a large percentage of human beings in this world, in fact better than the almost 58,000 people living on the streets of Los Angeles, a city within a city.

Our fixation with pets is pretty obvious to anyone who watches TV. For some time now, we’ve been seeing a growing number of ads at all hours for pet food. In a country where obesity is at epidemic proportions, we are clearly worried that at least our pets get balanced, healthy meals. We may not want to spend a lot of money on school lunch programs, but no way is Fido getting fillers or additives in his chow.

What caught my attention, however, is not the pet food ads, but how often pets appear in ads for products that have nothing to do with animals. You begin to realize that they are replacing kids. Kids used to be a surefire way to provoke warm fuzzy feelings, but maybe not so much anymore. The generic people we see in TV ads jog with their dogs, watch sad movies with their dogs, deal with chemotherapy with their dogs, meet strangers with their dogs. Welcome to the canine-inspired lifestyle!

And in real life, this seems to be happening too. Couples that move in together to take marriage for a test drive seem to be doing the same with pets. After cohabitation, the next step in a committed relationship is a shared pet. Kind of a trial run at children. And should there be a breakup, Legal Zoom now has documents for establishing joint custody of the four-legged offspring.

Why this is happening is a question at least a few of us are asking. The unconditional love of pets is perfect for our narcissistic age, some speculate. Others, noting that narcissism is a symptom of profound insecurity, say that we are terrified of the commitment that real marriage or real children might mean. Or that the children of so many failed unions doubt whether anything is as permanent as a pet’s affection.

Or all of the above. Just as true may be the crotchety assessment that we’ve lost all moral bearings. Exhibit A: Total pet industry expenditures have hit an annual rate of nearly $61 billion and climbing. We are spending fortunes on pet food and pet medicine, increasingly sophisticated vet care and grooming. During the last recession that nearly rolled our country over a fiscal cliff, spending on pets barely declined.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, households spend more on pets than on alcohol, men and boys clothing and reading materials.

Pets can get antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs. They have treadmills to stay in shape. Technology allows owners to video chat with pets when they are away. Services will take your pets out on play dates or come to your house to give them massages. There are pet spas and pet bakeries and, of course, pet parties with gourmet food.

And unless we miss the fact that pets have become the equivalent of children, yard signs in middle-class neighborhoods no longer only read “Drive as if your child lives here.” Now they are saying, “Drive as if your pets live here.”

Something is terribly upside down in portions of our world.

Leave it to the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” to put it all in context: “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly,” it says, calling attention to the kindness of St. Francis for his furry and winged friends.

But then it continues: “It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.”

Pope Francis goes a step further, suggesting something more profound and chilling at work: “Care for pets is like programmed love. I can program the loving response of a dog or a cat, and I don’t need the experience of a human, reciprocal love.”

The human capacity to love is phenomenal. We can love dogs and cats, hamsters and snakes. And to appreciate the affection of a pet is one of life’s pleasures. For the elderly or the ailing, a pet can be a great blessing. For a family, a pet can teach responsibility.

Yet what is striking today is the omnipresent evidence of so much loneliness and isolation — among the elderly, the sick, within families and within communities. And the doggone truth is that animals aren’t the solution. We are.

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