Great expectations: Is the pressure to be a ‘responsible’ pet owner increasing?

Britain has long been thought of as a nation of pet lovers. Nearly half of UK households have at least one pet, but the last 40 years have seen many changes in attitudes to animals and their ownership.

Human Animal Interaction

Research paper delves into pet-owner relationships



Britain has long been thought of as a nation of pet lovers. Nearly half of UK households have at least one pet, but the last 40 years have seen many changes in attitudes to animals and their ownership. Have these changes increased the pressure on pet owners to be more ‘responsible’? And is this always the best thing for our pets?

A recent paper by researchers at Uppsala University, Sweden and WALTHAM, published in the journal Social and Cultural Geography, examined the changing ways in which people view the companion animal–human relationship in Britain, based upon in-depth interviews with pet owners and pet-industry professionals.

Puppy love
The research team first attempted to quantify the scale and impact of pet ownership in the UK. A 2015 survey estimated there to be around 60 million pets living in the country, with dog populations rising from nearly 6 million to 8.5 million over just four decades. This large increase has been accompanied by a boost in spending on pet-related goods, and advancements in animal care and nutrition. Whilst the resulting improvements to quality and longevity of life are laudable, ethical questions have been raised about ever more complex, and expensive, medical and surgical interventions.

Paying the price
The interviews with owners revealed that pets are becoming more integrated into home life. Indeed they are increasingly seen as members of the family rather than ‘just a pet’. As a result, many owners are willing – even eager – for their beloved pet to receive advanced and complex veterinary care. However, for many pet the costs for such treatments are often hard to bear. Their love for, and loyalty to, these non-human family members can lead some owners into financial difficulty as they struggle to find the funds to keep their pet healthy.

Laying down the law
Legal changes also seemed to be affecting attitudes to pets. UK legislation over the past 30 years has seen a shift in emphasis, from governing animals to governing pet owners. Most notably, the UK Animal Welfare Act of 2006 introduced a ‘duty of care’ for animals. This allows easier prosecution for cruelty offences or failing to provide for a pet’s welfare needs.
This is affecting how pet owners manage their charges. Forty years ago it was not uncommon to see pet dogs roaming the streets alone, but it’s no longer socially or legally acceptable for dogs to be out and about without a human companion. A slew of media articles covering dog attacks on people has made some people anxious about interacting with dogs., Owners have been prosecuted for not having their dogs under control, both on public and private land. There is greater social expectation that dogs should be obedient and placid. This has led to an increase in numbers of dogs attending training classes, where welfare-friendly positive reinforcement methods are gaining popularity over older, dominance-based techniques.

A closer connection
The owner-pet relationship has also become more intense over recent years, say the study's authors. Increased investment (both emotionally and financially) can see owners demanding much more from their pets, and experiencing great disappointment and frustration if these expectations are not met. Some even become ‘over-attached’ to pets, and may push away other humans in favour of animal companionship. This can have a negative effect on both parties, with pets developing anxiety and behavioural problems which can impact the human-animal bond.

Cool for cats
In contrast to their canine counterparts, cats and their owners face few restrictions under British law, which recognises their ‘right to roam’. However, whilst the numbers of indoor cats in the U.K. is still relatively low, at around 10%, it is growing. This reflects trends in the U.S.A. where a much greater proportion of cats are not allowed out of the home unsupervised. There are also increasing concerns over cats’ impact on the natural environment, and some countries have introduced a ‘cat curfew’ during hours of darkness to limit the impact of cat predation on native wildlife.

Whilst this paper highlights some overall trends towards a more intense pet-keeping relationship, the authors concede that their findings are based upon a small sample of largely middle-class pet owners and professionals involved in the pet industry. “Owning a pet doesn’t feel the same for everyone” says Dr. Nancy Gee, Human-Animal Interaction research manager at WALTHAM, and a co-author of the paper. “Even within this group there was a diversity of opinion about the extent to which owners felt that they fit within new expectations of keeping a pet. Nevertheless, it's clear that people are striving to be responsible and do the best for the pets that share their lives”
Read full paper