Cats and dogs, they’ve got our number. Especially in America, whatever they need, whatever they want, it’s theirs. Food, grooming, medical care, mountains of toys, even vacations — done. Because, c’mon, Who’s a good boy? We love our pets like we love our kids. Possibly more. Maybe, depending on one’s kids, with good reason.
The stats tell the tale. Nearly 70 percent of American households include a pet, cats and dogs being the most popular. Notably, one of every five families adopted a pet while the COVID-19 pandemic raged. It’s not surprising, then, that during those two stressful years the U.S. pet industry surged, passing $120 billion in annual sales, a record.
What this signals is that, one, we desperately felt the need for greater companionship during the long lockdowns, and two, we were inclined to embrace our pets as never before, lavishing on them every creature comfort. (In the pandemic’s latter months, Dolly Parton launched a line of stylish pooch apparel called — what else? — Doggy Parton. Some found this ridiculous. Not me.)
So, all good, right? Well, yes. Mostly. More on that in a moment. Plainly, we obsess over our cats and dogs (and I suppose our llamas and cockatoos and gerbils too) because we believe they love us unconditionally, they can be affectionate, and they possess absolutely no sense of pessimism or moral superiority — which I happen to think may be their most admirable traits.
To some extent, the super-tight bonds between pets and their owners are uniquely American. No other country compares when it comes to the percentage of households that embrace cats and dogs. Modern-day India, for example, is near the bottom of that list. When I asked an Indian friend to theorize why that is, she texted: “Surrounded by family, the need to have a pet is nonessential.” We obviously see things differently in America. She added, however, that “the number of people living below the poverty line [helps explain] why pets are not commonplace in India.”
Here, money has not been so much of an impediment. We are, generally speaking, a wealthy nation, and just as we insist on driving nice cars and wearing outrageously expensive footwear, we want to have our playful companions, no matter their pedigree (or lack of). Furthermore, we insist they be coddled everywhere — even in movies, even in animated features. Ask any director what happens when you harm or, worse, kill a pet in a film. The audience will punish you hard.
Can our pet obsession be carried too far? Sure. But I ask you, is fawning over Fluffy any more unhealthy than the fan frenzy that surrounds a dreamboat athlete? Animals at least help place us within a larger cosmic context. They remind us daily that the world is not all about us Homo sapiens.
Unfortunately, the pandemic brought with it, among many other sadnesses, realization among a large number of new pet parents that they were unprepared to handle the responsibilities of their adoptees. Across the country, cats and dogs are being rehomed or returned to shelters. Jason Gluck, executive director of Furry Friends, a no-kill shelter in Jupiter, Florida, told me that his staff has done everything possible to keep animals in their new homes, but since COVID, “many have come back to us — more than ever.” It’s difficult to watch, he said of the phenomenon. “Pets give us such devotion. There is no better friend on a rainy day.” Actually, I’d add, on any day.
In the November/December issue, Cable Neuhaus wrote about New Year’s Eve celebrations.
This article appears in the January/February 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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