It’s All In A Name: What Should We Call Pet People?

indexWho are we when it comes to our pets?  Are we “parents?”  How about “family?”  Sadly neither term seems to fit, and Dr. Jennifer Coates offers up some thoughts on what to call us animal folk.

When writing about animals and all things veterinary, I struggle with something pretty basic — word choice. For example, should I call the people who have brought animals into their homes and are responsible for them “owners,” “pet parents,” or “caretakers?” Each term carries with it a whole host of baggage.

Do we truly own our animals? From a legal standpoint, yes we do, but the moral and ethical debate is ongoing. Personally, I find the phrase “pet parent” a little too cutesy for everyday use, to say nothing about the fact that “parenting” children and animals are two very different experiences.

And what about the word “pet”? I’m not a big fan, but I haven’t found a good alternative. “Companion animal” is the most accurate replacement, but whenever I try to use it more than once or twice in a post it starts sounding contrived. Doing away with “companion” and sticking with just “animal” wrongly removes people from the equation. When I’m talking about dogs and cats, I can say “dogs and cats,” but that gets a little old after awhile and certainly doesn’t work when I’m talking about issues that involve dogs, cats, horses, chinchillas, birds, rabbits, potbelly pigs, and so on.

Should I refer to an individual animal as “it”? From a grammar standpoint, I like the fact that “it” eliminates the awkward use of “he or she” and “him or her,” but I don’t like referring to everyone with masculine pronouns (that’s the feminist in me coming out, I guess). On the other hand, when I use all feminine pronouns I feel like I’m trying to make a point better addressed in a different discussion. For awhile, I referred to all cats as “she” and all dogs as “he,” but that didn’t fully solve the problem.

Picking between “who” and “that” is another point of contention. My grammar checker hates it when I say something along the lines of “all cats who have feline leukemia” and wants to change it to “all cats that have feline leukemia.” I’ve dug my feet in on that one, though. I definitely like “who” better.

Check out these two paragraphs:

If an animal vomits more than once or twice in a 24 hour period, its owner should call a veterinarian. Without appropriate care, the animal could become dehydrated, and its condition could rapidly deteriorate. Animals that vomit may need to be hospitalized to be cared for appropriately.

If a pet vomits more than once or twice in a 24 hour period, his or her caretaker should call a veterinarian. Without appropriate care, the pet could become dehydrated, and his or her condition could rapidly deteriorate. Pets who vomit may need to be hospitalized to be cared for appropriately.

Which version do you think sets a more appropriate tone when we talk about our pets … or should I say “fur kids”?

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: RTimages / Shutterstock

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Posted by on October 15, 2013. Filed under CRITTER TALK. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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9 Responses to It’s All In A Name: What Should We Call Pet People?

  1. James Smith Reply

    October 15, 2013 at 10:56 am

    I’d take my cue from the owners/companion person in discussions. For writing, please yourself because you’ll never please everyone else, so why not you?

  2. Anonymous Reply

    October 15, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    How about calling them my “animal child”. On the other hand, according to evolution we are all animals. People, especially politicians should not be considered better than our animal children, especially since our fur kids don’t’ judge us.

  3. E.A. Blair Reply

    October 15, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    I have read a number of source which have suggested that adult cats and dogs, at least, exhibit elements of juvenile behavior when they live with humans, especially in their vocalizations. I am most familiar with the work of ethologist Paul Leyhausen, who spent most of his career observing cats, domestic, feral and non-companion species.

    In his book Cat Behavior: The Predatory and Social Behavior of Domestic and Wild Cats, he claims that, at a basic level, cats react to their conspecifics in one of three ways: as prey, as threats or as social peers. His research suggests that humans, both by reason of our size and the shapes of our faces, can’t register as prey, and in the absence of behavior that threatens the cat, have little alternative but to accept us as social peers. Again, because of our size, humans come out at the top of the pecking order.

    These factors suggest that there is a parent/child type of bonding between humans and, at least, cats and probably dogs (dogs moreso since canids are pack animals).

    Of course there are definite trait differences between individual animals, and these are subject to training and environment, and Leyhausen acknowledges this in his work, noting that the top cats in groups are not necessarily the largest, strongest or most assertive individuals.

    I currently have two feline children, and do think of myself in a parental role. They are quite different; the older cat is clingily affectionate, plays a lot, craves attention, sleeps with me at night, follows me around the house and will even forgo her kibbles for a cuddle. The younger one seldom plays and seems indifferent to human attention, although she seems to be getting used to the idea of being petted. When I first brought her home, her reaction to cuddles was akin to human boredom, but with time, she has started seeking out attention. The difference between the two may be a good thing, since they don’t compete for the attention of the sole human member of the household.

    I agree with James – just as animals are different, people have different relationships with their pets. Mine are members of the household; other people have animals as mere decorations and some have animals for practical reasons, and there’s no one verbal label that can apply to all.

    • Michael John Scott Reply

      October 15, 2013 at 4:04 pm

      My dogs are members of the household E.A. and they might well be the most spoiled canines in America. Thanks for the interesting link.

      • E.A. Blair Reply

        October 15, 2013 at 5:02 pm

        The book’s not cheap (I bought my copy years ago at a discount from a science book club) and it’s not easy reading, but it’s worthwhile if you’re dedicated to your critters. I had to take a beginning course in ethology to understand it, and the last time I checked Amazon, even used copies were over $100.

        As for what I call my kitties, they’re just “my girls”.

  4. James Smith Reply

    October 16, 2013 at 6:54 am

    I have always liked the various iterations of Cat Woman, starting with Eartha Kitt.

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