How Pet Parents
Construct Their Roles
and Liz Grauerholz
This qualitative study explores a widespread contemporary family form, the inter-
species family, to understand how people who count their cats and dogs as family
members describe this process of becoming and maintaining family. We focus on one
aspect of interspecies families—pet parenting. We find that even though individuals
say their pets are family, not all consider themselves to be parents or engaged in pet
parenting. Participants with human children differed somewhat from those without
human children, suggesting that family form shapes pet parenting experiences.
Childless participants draw heavily from larger cultural narratives surrounding
parenting to construct the parent–pet child relationship. Those with younger human
children talk about the relationship primarily from a place of difference, while those
with older human children construct the relationship in similar ways to childless
individuals and emphasize similarities between raising children and pets. This study
contributes to the literature on family change and human–animal relationships within
pets, parenting, families, animals and society, interspecies
Family, Youth and Community Sciences Department, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA
Department of Sociology, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, USA
Liz Grauerholz, Department of Sociology, University of Central Florida, 4000 Central Florida Blvd,
Orlando, FL 32816, USA.
Humanity & Society
ªThe Author(s) 2018
Reprints and permission:
Personal Reflexive Statement
Nicole Owens. As a researcher, my work is situated at the intersection of family,
human–animal interaction, food, and health. In my personal life, I am a pet parent to
two adorable cats. My cat family members have inspired me to march for farm
animal welfare, protest rodeos, and become vegan. The research presented in this
article explores one facet of human–animal relationships. Specifically, we show how
parenting operates in a human–nonhuman animal context.
Liz Grauerholz. For most of my academic career, I’ve been interested in power
and social inequalities, especially gender inequality. As my understanding of inter-
sectionality grew, my focus expanded to interlocking oppressions and eventually to
understanding how speciesism is part of the larger picture. Long been active in the
feminist movement, my recent activism focuses on helping animals escape abuse and
exploitation, especially factory farming. I share my home with two humans, two
dogs, and two cats.
The ways family is conceptualized and accomplished, including its symbolic
meanings and functions, have undergone considerable change over the past century.
One of the more intriguing changes is the incorporation of nonhuman animals as
family members (Albert and Kris 1988; Belk 1988, 1996; Cain 1983; Gillespie,
Leffler, and Lerner 2002; Greenebaum 2004; Hirschman 1994; Sanders 1999;
Veevers 1985). Although research has documented the movement toward consider-
ing pets as family, less understood is exactly what is meant by pets-as-family. This
study explores whether people who count cats and dogs as family consider this
relationship as a form of parenting. Specifically, do people who count their cats and
dogs as family members identify as pet parents? If they identify as pet parents, how
do they construct this parenting relationship? Do these constructions differ depend-
ing upon family composition (e.g., the presence of human children)? The answers to
these questions provide a clearer picture of what it means to “do family” in con-
temporary society and provides a glimpse into a common but little-understood
phenomenon in the United States, the interspecies family.
The study of human–animal relationships is often considered a “boutique” topic and
trivial compared to issues and problems facing humans (Perrow 2000:473). This
view belies the pervasiveness of nonhuman animals in society and the ways they
shape every aspect of human society including consumption, environment, relation-
ships, the economy, and media. Indeed, Irvine (2008:1954) notes, “non-human
animals are so tightly woven into the fabric of society that it is difficult to imagine
life without them.” Sociologists who study families and relationships have been
reluctant to acknowledge the importance of animals in understanding how humans
create and maintain intimate ties, yet studies show that pets have a powerful effect
on these relationships. For instance, pet ownership/attachment to pets has been
2Humanity & Society XX(X)
shown to be associated with weaker social networks among young adults (Stallones
et al. 1990), pets can inform fertility decisions (Laurent-Simpson 2017), and pets are
considered important to the socialization of children (Melson 2003). Ignoring the
role pets play in families results in a woefully incomplete picture of contemporary
Pets are animals that are named, are not consumed for food, and primarily live in
the homes of humans (Thomas 1991). Currently, more people live with pets than
children (68 percent and 55 percent, respectively; American Pet Products Manufac-
turing Association 2014; U.S. Census Bureau 2015). The ways in which individuals
relate to their pets have also changed significantly. The majority of pet owners
consider their pets to be family members, and rates as high as 95 percent have been
noted in The Harris Poll (PR Newswire 2015). Americans are more likely to agree
that pets should be considered family than that the same-sex couples without chil-
dren should be considered family (51 percent considered pets to be family compared
to 32 percent who agreed that two men with no children or two women without
children would be considered family; Powell et al. 2010).
The rise in households who consider their pets to be family did not occur in a
vacuum; major shifts in families since the last half of the twentieth century con-
tributed to this phenomenon. In particular, delayed age at marriage, the deinstitu-
tionalization of marriage (e.g., increased cohabitation and increase in numbers of
individuals who remain unmarried), increase in child-free/childless women, experi-
mentation with varying family arrangements as a matter of choice, and new path-
ways to parenthood have opened the door to reorganizing and redefining marriage
and family in major ways (Amato et al. 2007; Blackstone 2014; Cherlin 2010;
DeOllos and Kapinus 2002; Smock and Greenland 2010; Umberson, Pudrovska,
and Reczek 2010). Living without human companions, along with increasing legiti-
macy of nontraditional family forms (Smock and Greenland 2010), has opened the
door to gratifying emotional and psychological needs in more diverse ways includ-
ing with nonhumans. As Blackstone (2014) notes, many childless families create
strong and emotionally intimate relationships with their pets. The confluence of
these two societal shifts—changing families and changing relationship to ani-
mals—has given rise to the interspecies family. For many Americans, pets are no
longer considered property but close companions and even children.
What does it mean for a pet to be a family member? Studies suggest that pets may
be considered surrogate children (Gillespie et al. 2002; Greenebaum 2004; Turner
2001) and that a dog’s status is often elevated to “fur baby” (Greenebaum 2004;
Schaffer 2009). Yet, while some researchers suggest that these animal family mem-
bers are merely surrogate children for the childless or empty nesters (Blouin 2012),
others find that this characterization fails to capture the complexity of the pets-as-
family relationship (Beck and Katcher 1988). For instance, Irvine (2013) conducted
in-depth interviews with unsheltered homeless individuals and found that many
referred to their animals as family members. When talking about their animals, they
discussed the depth and intensity of their relationships, the responsibility, and the
Owens and Grauerholz 3
caregiving, often in comparison to their relationships with other people. One woman
who was living in a car with her cat stated, “You know, when you have a home,
your relationships with animals take place at home. But when you’re homeless,
they are your home” (Irvine 2013:85). Risley-Curtis et al. (2006:442) also found
through in-depth interviews with women of color that their relationships with pets
were described as “providing friendship, fun, love, comfort, and/or constancy for
themselves or their children or both.” Arguably, conceptualizing pets as simply
surrogate children or human replacements minimizes the human–animal relation-
ship (Serpell 1986).
Interspecies families reflect the diverse ways contemporary Americans construct
family life. Interspecies families (like all families) are social constructions, some-
thing people “do” (Carrigan 1999). This process is especially critical for families of
choice including interspecies families, who are not given automatic legitimacy;
these families must work at creating family relationships and meanings. One key
way families are accomplished in this way is through narrative (Weeks, Heaphy, and
Donovan 2001). When individuals narrate their family life, they assign meaning,
claim identities, and substantiate their relationships. Narrative gives families of
choice a method to describe relationships as “something we’ve created, not as
substitutes—that makes it sound inferior—but as an alternative that we’ve created”
(Weeks et al. 2001:35). Individuals tell stories to make sense of their family life by
including, and sometimes centering, their animal family members in these stories.
Examining the stories constructed by these family members can uncover how and
under what conditions individuals create meaning and do family in alternative ways
and also how nonhuman animals are actively incorporated into family life.
Of course, what it means to be a parent and the parenting role has undergone
change in U.S. culture, and these shifts also give rise to alternative ways of defin-
ing parenthood including pet parenthood. Being a parent goes beyond being legally
related by blood or adoption or assuming basic responsibilities of caretaking. In
U.S. culture, especially among middle-class families, a “good” parent is involved
in virtually every aspect of a child’s life—socializing them to behave appropri-
ately, providing quality education, and attending to physical, emotional, cognitive
and spiritual needs, and so on. Of course, gender profoundly shapes these cultural
ideals, and women are held to higher standards than men. Hays (1996) documents
how motherhood in contemporary society can be characterized as “intensive
mothering” whereby mothers are responsible for seeing to all their children’s
needs. The expectations for fathers have also changed from one of provider and
disciplinarian to caretaker and emotional support (Humberd and Ladge 2014). In
reality, studies do show that fathers are spending more time in the presence of their
children, but mothers continue to bear the burden of care for children (Wall and
Beyond changing cultural and gendered expectations of parents, what it means to
be a parent or who “qualifies” to be a parent is less clear. For instance, when parental
rights are terminated, do the parents cease to consider themselves mothers and
4Humanity & Society XX(X)
fathers? Studies of women who parent from prison suggest that despite physical
distance and lack of coresidence, they very much regard themselves as mothers
(Enos 2001). Conversely, after divorce, parents may fail to provide basic care and
support (hence, the term “absentee parent” or “deadbeat dad”), but they are still
considered parents by the state (Pirog and Ziol-Guest 2006). In other cases, parents
may have no legal obligation to support children (e.g., if the child is from a previous
relationship) but nonetheless are full participants in the child’s upbringing whether
they are legally married to the child’s biological parent or not (e.g., Marsiglio 2004).
These examples reveal that parenthood is also a social construction and how we
construct parenting varies over time and by group and depends heavily on how
individuals interpret and identify with their roles. Thus, we maintain that for indi-
viduals who consider themselves to be pet parents, it is the interpretation and def-
inition of their role that is important, not how they actually act toward the pet or
provision of care.
Research has documented the existence of interspecies families and the close
connections humans have to their pets. However, little is understood about how
everyday practices create these ties and our knowledge of how the role of pets in
childless families differs from that of families with children is especially lacking
(Blackstone 2014). This study fills these gaps by focusing on interspecies families
wherein individuals describe their relationship as a form of parenting. Specifically,
when people identify themselves as pet parents, how do they describe what parenting
means to them? We find that not all individuals who consider pets to be family
members consider themselves to be parents, but many do, and that parenting stories
differed depending upon whether families also included human children. Delving
into these descriptions reveals parenting to be an interpretive practice or
“interactional achievement” (Holstein and Gubrium 2008:5) and provides critical
insight into contemporary parenthood and family life.
Data Collection and Respondents
This study uses a qualitative, interpretive approach. Semistructured interviews were
conducted with 39 individuals who consider their dogs or cats to be family members
(cats and dogs are by far the most common pets in the United States according to the
American Pet Products Manufacturing Association ). Convenience and snow-
ball sampling were the primary means of recruitment. All interviews were conducted
in person by Owens in respondents’ homes.
The interview was structured around nine open-ended questions that tapped into
various family dynamics such as power and care work; the current study focuses on
questions related to the nature of the human–animal relationship (“Tell me about
how/when you realized you considered your companion animal a family member”)
and whether it resembles human-parenting styles (“Do you consider yourself a
Owens and Grauerholz 5
parent [to your pet]? If yes, describe your parenting style”). Active interviewing was
utilized in order to activate storytelling from various standpoints (Holstein and
Gubrium 1995). For instance, Owens suggested different standpoints from which
to speak at various times throughout the interview (e.g., “As a mother of human
children, how does parenting compare to your relationship with your companion
animal?”). All interviews were audio recorded and transcribed. Pseudonyms are
used for respondents and their family members.
The sample was predominantly white (95 percent) with 28 percent identifying as
Hispanic/Latino. A little over half (56 percent) were women. In terms of marital
status, 46 percent were single, 44 percent were married, and 8 percent were divorced
or widowed. Forty-six percent were parents of human children. Average household
income was US$76,000 and average age was 36.6 years. Most respondents lived
with just dogs (59 percent) or both cats and dogs (39 percent); just 18 percent lived
with only cats. A list of all participants and demographics is provided in Table 1.
Coding and Data Analysis
Each interview was coded initially line-by-line to derive initial themes. Transcripts
were coded line-by-line again using “in vivo codes” that bring to life what was going
on in each sentence in a concise way (Charmaz 2006:55). Initial coding was fol-
lowed by focused coding which is more “directed, selective, and conceptual than
word-by-word, line-by-line, and incident-by-incident” (Charmaz 2006:57). With
focused coding, we were able to sift through larger chunks of data and assign to
them broader codes. The focused codes eventually turned into the categories used for
this study. The larger “parenting” theme was prominent in the data, and from there,
we analyzed the patterns and categories of pet parenting. It was through this process
that it became clear that not all individuals who consider pets to be family members
identify as pet parents, and for those that do, there are differences in the ways parents
of human children and childless adults construct their relationships. Our findings
explore each of these relationships to show what pet parenting means within inter-
Although our focus is on pet parenting, it is important to note that not all participants
considered themselves to be pet parents. Of the 39 respondents, 8 did not consider
themselves to be pet parents at all and an additional 6 only somewhat considered
themselves to be pet parents or said that it depends, even though they all considered
their pets to be family members. Among the 14 who do not consider themselves to be
pet parents or only somewhat, 9 were men and 5 were women. Additionally, 9 of
these 14 were parents of humans. These participants described their relationship with
their pets in various ways such as “roommate,” “caretaker,” “friend,” “companion,”
6Humanity & Society XX(X)
Table 1. Respondents’ Demographics
Parent Cat Dog Age Gender Race
Status Degree Earned
Jacob No No No Yes 29 Man White No Single Bachelor’s degree US$30,000
Lucas No No No Yes 26 Man White Yes Single Some college US$60,000
Noah No No No Yes 29 Man White No Married Bachelor’s degree US$90,000
Elijah No Somewhat Yes Yes 32 Man White No Single Doctoral degree US$53,000
Isaac No Somewhat Yes Yes 32 Man White No Single Doctoral degree US$75,000
Anton No Yes Yes Yes 31 Man White No Single Bachelor’s degree US$30,000
Ben No Yes Yes Yes 28 Man White No Single Bachelor’s degree US$85,000
Cesar No Yes Yes No 24 Man Black No Single Bachelor’s degree US$25,000
Franco No Yes Yes No 33 Man White Yes Married Bachelor’s degree US$150,000
Gabriel No Yes Yes No 28 Man White No Single Bachelor’s degree US$32,000
Ricardo No Yes Yes No 23 Man White Yes Single Some college US$30,000
Adrienne No Yes Yes Yes 33 Woman White No Single Master’s degree US$80,000
Camilla No Yes Yes No 31 Woman White Yes Married Master’s degree US$150,000
Caroline No Yes Yes Yes 25 Woman White No Single Bachelor’s degree US$85,000
Daphne No Yes No Yes 21 Woman White No Single Some college US$0
Dara No Yes No Yes 29 Woman Asian No Single Bachelor’s degree US$47,000
Leah No Yes No Yes 28 Woman White No Single Bachelor’s degree US$30,000
Madison No Yes Yes Yes 23 Woman White No Single Bachelor’s degree US$10,000
Sandra No Yes Yes Yes 27 Woman White No Single Bachelor’s degree US$32,000
Scarlet No Yes Yes No 31 Woman White No Single Cosmetology
Taylor No Yes Yes No 28 Woman White Yes Married Bachelor’s degree US$160,000
Pedro Yes No Yes No 30 Man White Yes Married Master’s degree US$70,000
Vincent Yes No Yes No 44 Man White No Married Doctoral degree US$90,000
Alfred Yes Somewhat Yes No 85 Man White No Widowed Master’s degree US$70,000
Arthur Yes Somewhat Yes No 66 Man White No Married Master’s degree US$75,000
Table 1. (continued)
Parent Cat Dog Age Gender Race
Status Degree Earned
Javier Yes Yes Yes No 29 Man White Yes Single High school
Oliver Yes Yes Yes No 65 Man White No Divorced Bachelor’s degree US$40,000
Alice Yes No Yes No 33 Woman White No Married Doctoral degree US$116,000
Martina Yes No Yes No 30 Woman White Yes Married Bachelor’s degree US$70,000
Melanie Yes No Yes No 33 Woman White No Married Master’s degree US$90,000
Ana Yes Somewhat No Yes 30 Woman White Yes Married Bachelor’s degree US$120,000
Sybil Yes Somewhat Yes No 46 Woman White No Married Bachelor’s degree US$150,000
Charlotte Yes Yes Yes No 51 Woman White No Married Associate’s
Isabel Yes Yes Yes No 26 Woman White No Single High school
Penelope Yes Yes Yes No 60 Woman White Yes Divorced Bachelor’s degree US$37,000
Rose Yes Yes Yes No 63 Woman White No Married High school
Sofia Yes Yes Yes Yes 53 Woman White Yes Married Bachelor’s degree US$75,000
Valerie Yes Yes Yes Yes 41 Woman White No Married Bachelor’s degree US$250,000
Violet Yes Yes Yes No 52 Woman White No Married High school
or even “the one that can pour the food for them.” Even though they could easily be
describing their relationship with a child—for instance, Alice says about her cats that
she has “taken care of them and nurtured them and watched them grow up,” and
Isaac states he applies “the same nurturing, loving things” as he would to a child—
these individuals reject the label of “parent/dad/mom.”
Although the majority of both men and women claimed the identity of “pet
parent,” women were much more likely than men to do so. Among the 21 women
in our sample, 81 percent said they were pet parents; among the 17 men, 47 percent
agreed. Men were nearly twice as likely as women to reject the label altogether or to
qualify it (“depends”/somewhat). This gender effect is consistent with findings from
Ramirez (2006) that showed women were more likely than men to apply labels of
“mother” or “parent” in speaking about their relationship to their pets whereas men
were more likely to see pets as friends, highlighting traditional gender identities and
revealing how pets can become props for humans’ identity performances.
In addition, many of the participants who do not identify as pet parents were
involved in the animal rights movement. For those identifying with the animal rights
movement, all animals were seen as having agency, and these participants were
philosophically opposed to claiming ownership or parental status. For instance,
Jacob does not consider himself a pet parent and when asked the question, he states:
I don’t consider saying I am a father as it gives some entitlement over pets. I hate it
when people say they are an owner of an animal because you don’t really own it. It is
rather a part of your life, a companion. I don’t like the connotation. I am more of a
caretaker. We just share each other’s life and I provide for them. That’s how I see it. I
just have a different view on it. Most people think about it in a way that they own that
animal. I don’t see it that way though. That just means that you come first. If he bites or
scratches me I look at it from the point that I annoyed him. He was letting me know that
he does not want me to do that anymore.
Not identifying as a parent to pet companions is consistent with the animal rights
perspective that maintains pet-keeping for humans’ pleasure is immoral because
it takes away the right of animals not to be treated as things (Irvine 2004). It is
possible that those non-pet parents who are activists see assigning parenting roles
to pets as exploitation of animals for humans’ emotional gratification and
diminishing the inherent value of the animals that is not dependent on humans.
One participant who did not identify with the movement and also did not consider
himself to be a pet parent seemed to adopt a more egalitarian perspective:
I almost think of it like I’m one of them, I guess. Because I don’t treat them as pets, but
I make sure they have food and everything. I’ll get down here and roll around with Oreo
and play with them. He has little soccer balls that he plays fetch with, and things like
that. I try to interact with them on a cat level, rather than just an adult, I guess. So I just
Owens and Grauerholz 9
try to be one of them. So it’s not really a parent thing, I just happen to be the one that
can pour the food for them.
These findings suggest that both gender and identification with the animal rights
movement shape individuals’ perceptions of their pets. These participants do not
borrow from cultural narratives surrounding parenting to describe their relationships
with their dogs or cats but rather frame them in terms of animal rights or another
familiar family narrative, egalitarianism. These descriptions differed from those of
pet parents in significant ways.
Our focus is on how participants who consider themselves to be pet parents describe
their roles. We found these accounts differed depending upon whether they had
human children and therefore discuss these separately. Both types of stories reveal
insights into ways interspecies families are created and legitimated in these inter-
Childless in interspecies families. Parenthood is often considered the keystone of family
legitimacy. Powell et al. (2010) found that Americans considered parenthood more
important than any other factor in deciding what counts as a family. Single, cohabit-
ing, and married participants without human children do not have access to the
legitimizing parent-of-a-human claim, so they must rely on other cultural and lin-
guistic resources available to construct family in creative ways. Pet parenting
appears to be one way to achieve this status.
Among childless individuals in our study (n¼21), 16 considered themselves pet
parents. These individuals describe their family life by emphasizing their role as
parents in two ways: teaching and training cats and dogs to behave in public and with
others and constructing family with traditional parenting language. At the same time,
these childless pet parents envision a future with human children and see pet
parenting as training and practicing for potential future human children.
Similar to practices and discourse surrounding parenting human children (Herbert
2004), childless pet parents discussed teaching, training, and socializing their cats
and dogs to behave in public and with others. When Adrienne was asked why she felt
like she was parenting her dog and cat she claims that it is, “Like teaching them what
they can and can’t do, and right from wrong. Or, if they do this, they’re gonna get in
trouble.” Camilla also talked about the importance of teaching her dog Max right
from wrong, especially when it comes to biting and jumping (a reoccurring theme
among dog parents):
I don’t want Max to misbehave while we’re doing this interview, and so I know I
planned to have things in advance to distract him as if you’re distracting a
10 Humanity & Society XX(X)
child ...because I don’t want him to jump on you. We’re still training him. He still
doesn’t know a lot of things. We’re still trying to get him to not jump on people and
biting all of that.
Socialization also seemed to be an important part of the training frame. Caroline
mentions socialization when discussing pet parenting:
Lucy doesn’t really get in trouble either. If she’s chasing Molly around or chasing
Angel, “Lucy, okay quit it.” I use a tinfoil cardboard to spank her on her behind when
she’s bad, if she’s a bad puppy .... She’s just a puppy, you know? Whereas, Lucy
didn’t get the right socialization, Molly’s not fearful at anything .... So, it’s totally
Just as parents stress the importance of socializing human children, socializing dogs
with other animals was an important part of pet parents’ training pets to behave.
When they are socialized, they respond to parents’ discipline more effectively, they
interact with their siblings in more appropriate ways, and they play well with other
dogs and those dogs’ family members.
It wasn’t only dog-parents who accessed these cultural frames. When Daphne was
asked whether she felt like she was parenting her cat she replied, “I would definitely
describe it that way,” adding:
Tigger will come up on the counter and he will put his face into your water, like your
cup of water. He has a tendency to knock it over and spill water everywhere. Whenever
he does that, I try to splash water on him to get him to associate that negatively ....I
might get frustrated but at the end of the day, I care about him a lot. I would assume that
is close to parenting.
Anton, a cat-parent, also echoed another parenting narrative: schooling. About his
cat, he stated: “Yeah, I’m his dad, definitely. I mean, I take care of him, whatever he
needs. Take him to the doctor, feed him, water, let him out. If there was cat school
I’d take him there.”
Teaching, training, and disciplining human children are accepted as typical par-
enting practices in Western culture. By applying these cultural frames, pet parents
construct their relationship as parents. Socializing dogs with other animals is almost
identical to the way human parents discuss the importance of socializing their human
children. School is one place where primary socialization occurs and pet parents do
not shy away from employing this narrative resource. Jumping and biting may be
important to pet parents’ stories because they resemble how human parents teach
their children appropriate physical boundaries when interacting with other children
and adults. By highlighting human-parenting strategies (socialization, schooling,
and discipline), childless pet parents can borrow from cultural parenting narratives
in order to establish themselves as legitimate parents.
Owens and Grauerholz 11
A second strategy used by childless respondents was to borrow parenting lan-
guage while constructing family. All realities are constructed and maintained with
language, and family identity is no exception. The names assigned to objects and
subjects allow actors to act based on the meanings assigned to those names (Berger
and Luckmann 1966). Childless participants who consider themselves pet parents
talk about their family lives using shared language on parenting. Words like “mom,”
“dad,” “son,” “daughter,” and “baby” were brought up throughout the interviews. A
word search in the overarching pet parenting narrative document revealed that baby
was one of the most common family words used within the parenting transcripts.
Although parenting language was common for all those who considered them-
selves to be pet parents (191 total mentions of parent), it stood out as a major theme
within childless interspecies families’ stories of pet parenting predominately
because of how it was used. Of the 191 total mentions of parent, 118 of the mentions
were by the childless pet parents. The word baby was used approximately the same
amount of times by pet parents of humans and childless pet parents (78 total men-
tions, split approximately in half by each group). However, when parents of humans
use the word baby in their parenting narrative, they are mostly referring to their
human children, whereas childless pet parents are primarily using the word baby to
discuss their cats and dogs. Scarlet discussed how she felt when other family mem-
bers minimize her parental relationship with her dog:
It makes me sad almost. I’m like, ‘How could you say that?’ I love my dog .... It’s sad,
like she’s not good enough or something compared to kids, having a baby. Which I get
it, but she is my baby.
In addition to baby, “children” was used 93 times in the larger pet parenting doc-
ument which included the pet parenting narratives of both the childless and human
parents (to provide some context, the word “dog” appeared 365 times in the larger
pet parenting document and was split almost evenly between groups with childless
pet parents mentioning “dog” 178 times). When pet parenting narratives of the
childless were separated from pet parenting narratives of human parents, the word
children arose as more commonly used in childless pet parenting narratives at 53
times compared to human parents at 40 times. Dara (a childless pet parent) used baby
and children interchangeably: “Absolutely. They are my babies. They’re my chil-
dren and they come first.” Interestingly, the more gendered version of children,
daughter and son, was only used referring to a cat or dog one time each and both
times they were uttered by each member of one cohabiting couple. First, Ben calls
the cat his son, “He’s better known as the son” and then almost immediately after
Caroline (his girlfriend) calls the dogs her daughters, “I totally call my dogs my
daughters.” The frequency of baby and children over daughter and son may be due to
the more widespread use of these words in general, making it much easier for pet
parents to access them for making claims on family identity. It may also suggest that
gender is not the master identity for animals that it is for humans, and animals do not
12 Humanity & Society XX(X)
“do gender” in the way humans do, thus gender does not frame interactions between
humans and animals as it does for human–human interactions (Ridgeway 2011;
West and Zimmerman 1987).
Two more parenting words were expressed almost as commonly as baby and
children: Mom was mentioned 69 times overall with 37 of those instances in
childless narratives pet parenting narratives and dad 50 times with 30 of those
instances in the childless pet parenting narratives. Adrienne names herself mom
but her cohabiting fiance´ “guy” instead of dad: “I’m like, ‘When we have kids,
you’re gonna be the nice guy, and I’m gonna be the mean mom’.” Although
Dara has only been dating her boyfriend a few months, she calls herself mom
and her boyfriend dad, despite not initially identifying her boyfriend as a mem-
ber of her family at the start of the interview. Dara was asked to clarify how
their family was constructed. In other words, could Blake be a daddy to the
cats when Dara was the mommy, and did Dara not include Blake in her family?
Did this resemble some other family arrangement, more like a stepfamily?
That’s a good question. I do call Blake their daddy because I’m their mommy. I guess
Blake would be a part of my family. Our relationship is still pretty new. It’s less than a
year, but he’s very, very important to me. He’s a really great friend, a great partner.
He’s amazing. But I don’t think that we necessarily have to be in a relationship in order
for him to be their daddy. He’s interacted with them. He’s been with them. If Blake and
I were to ever break-up and we’re in a situation where I needed someone take care of
them, and I know he would help me out, I would still consider him their daddy.
It appears that pet parenthood is fairly fluid. When couples live together, pet
parenthood can be claimed by both parties. “Mommy” and “daddy” were most
frequently used once couples romantically involved were living together, married
or not. These specific parenting words were not used to describe partners who did
not live with the participant or to describe other family members or roommates who
lived with the participant.
A majority of childless participants construct their family identity as pet parents.
Naming dogs or cats baby or calling oneself mom or dad of a pet is a family identity
announcement. These participants receive family identity placement when others act
toward them with the shared meaning behind that family language. Although obsta-
cles may occur when family claims are not accepted, the word pet parent is widely
used and accepted throughout contemporary culture (Schaffer 2009). Language, and
in this case words, provides participants with tools to construct their family identity
with names that hold shared meaning.
Among these childless pet parents, a third theme emerged: training and practicing
for future human children. This narrative tool was not so much employed to stake
claim to parenting or family identity as it was to highlight how pets make individuals
better future parents. These pet parents seem to view parenting of pets and parenting
Owens and Grauerholz 13
of humans as existing along the same continuum of caring and taking responsibility
of children. For instance, Cesar noted:
I want kids, but I want them later on in life. I’ve gotten the opportunity to be prepped in
some regards, being alone on my own in adulthood. Responsibility for life was some-
thing I’d not yet had. In that regard, I really wanted to get a dog for training purposes. I
don’t know who said it, but ...somebody said, ‘Before you have a child, get a dog.’
That’s a good step to go about it. From the initial moment, I knew it was a commitment.
Cesar was single, but other participants who were in committed relationships made
conscious decisions to prepare for human children by parenting cats and dogs.
We’ve talked about this because we do plan on having children one day .... I feel like
we’ve made this progression. Shadow [a cat] took about this much responsibility
[hands facing each other, about 6 inches apart] and Charlie [a dog] takes about this
much responsibility [hands facing each other, about 12 inches apart]. We always joke
that since we’ve already planned a budget, feeding schedules, taking them out, and
things like that, it’s almost like we’ve been training to have children.
In these cases, integrating current pets with potential future human babies is an
ongoing conversation. Madison continues:
So, we’ve already thought about how to integrate human babies with our fur babies. We
watch the puppy crawling up into their little playpen or whatever. We totally intend on
letting them play. I’m sure the puppy is going to cuddle with them .... It’ll be different
but I feel like it won’t change that much.
Some participants had even considered specific ways human children would be
incorporated into the existing interspecies family. Taylor, for example, talked about
what she would tell her future children in the event that they wondered why the pets
were able to sleep with them while the human children were not:
I teach parenting, and I read about the stuff and have to .... I don’t really believe too
much in your children sleeping with you but with my dogs, it’s different ...Our
children might be like, “well the dogs get to sleep with you,” and, we’re like, “but
that’s different.” I think it is okay sometimes for children to sleep with their parents but
I don’t think it’s a good idea to do it all the time.
Interestingly, most of the participants who discussed practicing parenting with cats
and dogs as a way to prepare for future human children did not mention being
pregnant, trying to get pregnant, adopting, trying to adopt, and many were not in
committed relationships. Nonetheless, these descriptions suggest that pet parenting
is not viewed as a permanent alternative to human-parenting. Many participants
14 Humanity & Society XX(X)
discussed pet parenting as training and practicing for potential future human chil-
dren, suggesting that they desired and planned to have (human) children in
Parents in interspecies families. Among the 18 participants with human children, there
were 10 parents of younger human children and 8 parents of older human children.
Three parents of younger human children considered themselves pet parents and 6
parents of older human children considered themselves pet parents. These parents
narrated their pet parenting differently than pet parents without children, and there
were also some differences between parents of younger children and parents of older
children. Parents of younger children narrate pet parenting by comparing parenting
pets to parenting children. These narratives included talk of difference. They also
included narratives of guilt over how their relationship has changed with their pet
since their family grew to include children. Parents of older human children narrate
parenting by comparing parenting kids and pets, but they emphasize similarities.
They also include narratives of finding joy in providing for pets both physically and
emotionally. Finally, these pet parents also merge narrative strategies resembling the
childless narratives (e.g., discussions of training and/or discipline) and the narratives
of parents of younger children (e.g., parenting children requiring more involvement).
Whereas childless pet parents stressed socialization, parents of human children
spoke less frequently about teaching and training their pets to behave in public and
with other people overall, but when it came up, the tone was different. These
narratives are more about acceptance in one way or another. For instance:
I think I’m even more lenient with the dogs than with my children (Sofia). We try to
teach him manners (Javier). It’s all you can do is try. (Isabel) Sometimes his barking is
the one thing we feel we can’t control. (Javier)
Interestingly, one pet parent of human children discussed training herself when her
dogs are acting out in public:
It’s funny because I’ll be walking them through the neighborhood and everybody
knows I work with dogs, and my dogs are the worst. “You know what I mean?” As
far as when I’m out in the public, they’ll do the big barking and the not listening. That
was really hard for me because I didn’t get that from other dogs [dogs she worked
with]. I had to train myself into learning that my dogs were my children—going back to
family—not my clients. (Valerie)
Overall, pet parents with human children focus on other aspects of pet parenting
when narrating family life.
The most striking contrast in descriptions of pet parenting was between parents of
younger children and childless participants. While some parents of younger children
noted that their dogs or cats helped prepare them for human parenting (a theme that
Owens and Grauerholz 15
emerged among childless individuals), parents of younger children stressed how
different the two types of parenting are. They often compared parenting before and
after they had children. For example:
...it’s so much more involved than having a pet. Your pet can give you love, but they
don’t understand everything that you need to do to raise a child .... It’s a totally
different dynamic. (Sybil)
We felt like we were good parents for Buddy [dog], therefore we felt like we could
be good parents for Liam as well, obviously on a different level .... It’s not the same.
Especially before I had children, I was their [her three cats’] mom. I think maybe
now because I have children of my own, and they [the cats] know that and they [the
cats] know our lives and our house is so crazy with the boys and stuff .... Once I had
my first son, I mean, everything changed. I never knew I could love someone so much,
you know what I mean? .... Whereas I absolutely 100 percent love animals and I love
my pets, it’s very different. My children, yeah, the love is so different. (Ana)
This theme of “difference” was the most common one to emerge among parents of
younger humans. Participants stressed different emotional ties, different investments
of energy, and different amounts of work. Isabel remarked that “Your son never
leaves your mind, ever. Buddy you can put to the side because, I don’t know, I feel
bad saying that but, you can just separate it.” In some ways, our findings are similar
to Shir-Vertesh (2012) who found that pets occupy the status of “flexible
personhood” whose treatment depends upon changing life and social circumstances
their owners face. That is, pets who are perceived as family members and children
can be demoted or even relinquished in short order such as when a human child
enters the family (Shir-Vertesh 2012). In our study, the value of pet-children does
seem to be diminished although these respondents claim that the pets are still their
children. In addition to the diminishment characteristic of flexible personhood, our
study reveals a sort of disparate or differential parenting within families wherein
siblings are treated differently by parents (Turkheimer and Waldron 2000; Waller-
stein and Lewis 2007); the current study suggests that within interspecies families,
the arrival or presence of younger human children often leads to differential
Guilt was another major subtheme that emerged when pet parents of younger
children were asked about pet parenting. These feelings were brought up when
these parents discussed how parenting pets has changed since having children.
They no longer have as much time or energy to care for the cats and/or dogs. Ana
When I just had Alexander it wasn’t crazy, we just had one, but now the boys are older,
and Layla’s older and walking around, it’s so much to take care of them. It takes so
much of my time and energy and I think the cats know that and there have been times
16 Humanity & Society XX(X)
where I have felt bad because I felt, look, I’m so tired by the end of the day or during the
day when the two little ones are napping and Alexander’s in school that I just want to sit
in quiet for a few seconds, and then they come to me. I feel like they need love because
they haven’t got much time and attention from me or Rick [husband] or whatever, and I
feel bad and I try to love them, and that’s why we try to make nighttime as much about
the cats as we can.
Isabel also says, “He [dog] wasn’t getting enough attention. I felt so guilty. I was so
busy with the baby, but he is a dog. He can for a while be by himself.” As Sanders
(2003) explains, humans actively engage in constructing animal identities and emo-
tions, and this may be what we see happening here when Isabel constructs the pet as
In addition to the parents feeling guilty, some of the animals were constructed as
depressed, sad, and/or understanding about these changes. Although these pet
parents feel bad for not having as much time for their pets, they are confident that
parenting a child is different cognitively, emotionally, and demands more involve-
ment. Thus, not only are pet parents constructing their pets’ emotions, in doing so
they are able to construct themselves as good parents who can recognize and prior-
itize their human children’s needs. We also gain insight into how disparate parenting
(treating siblings differently) between interspecies family members differs from that
focused on human children; when assessing their relationships with their human
children, parents often don’t see or are not concerned with differential treatment
(Wallerstein and Lewis 2007), perhaps because there is a strong cultural expectation
that siblings be treated similarly that parents have difficulty seeing or admitting to
doing so. Perhaps equally strong is the expectation that human family members
should take priority over nonhuman members in interspecies families that may
explain why participants are open about their “neglect” of pets.
Guilt only came up twice in childless pet parenting narratives. In the first instance,
the childless pet parents felt guilty after they scolded their dog for wanting to play
when the human was trying to work. In the other instance, guilt was expressed because
of a disciplinary action the pet parent took which reminded him of his past:
I mean the worst thing I’ve ever done, one day I was really frustrated and kind of
sprayed water at her [one of his dogs] with the hose and I couldn’t, I didn’t believe
I did that. Just because that was one of my father’s tactics from the past. When I
did that I think I really transformed into like, “it’s more about what I’m doing
rather than what she’s doing” and if she’s going to go in the house because I’m not
being responsible enough to take her out, or show her where to go ...it’s so
obvious now like when she has to go, she gives so many hints, all you have to
do is listen. (Ricardo)
The two stories of guilt from childless pet parents differ from the stories of guilt told
by the parents of younger human children. Perhaps the guilt expressed by
Owens and Grauerholz 17
respondents with human children is best understood as another dimension of the
contemporary parenting ideology that requires parents to parent “intensively” and to
feel guilty when they can’t or don’t.
Pet parents of older children describe their relationships differently than child-
less pet parents and pet parents of younger children. For the most part, these pet
parents aren’t overwhelmingly discussing training and disciplining animals to
behave, practicing for children, the differences in pet parenting versus parenting
children, or feeling guilt over the amount of time they do or do not spend with their
pets. They compare parenting children and pets, and they seem to find more
similarities than differences and, in some ways, suggest that parenting of pets is
covered that being a pet parent is about the joy in providing for one another. They
also merge narratives resembling the childless (e.g., discussions of training and/or
discipline) and parents of younger children (e.g., parenting children requiring more
As pet parents of younger children do, pet parents of older children compare
parenting their pets with parenting their children, but similarities are emphasized
rather than differences. When Rose was asked whether she parented her dog differ-
ently than she parented her son she said, “No. I told Elliot [her son], ‘We spoil the
dog just like we spoiled you.’ I said, ‘We never left you alone and we never left the
dog alone.’ Then he just laughs, ‘But she’s a dog!’” Rose tells this story which
emphasizes sameness in a playful way but when I asked her whether she thought
her son was joking when he laughs because his mother is comparing parenting him
to parenting a dog, she replied: “No, he’s serious.” She is serious too. She says
“people that don’t feel that way think you’re nuts, but we’re entitled. I’m old now
and if we want to spoil our dog, we can.” Oliver, who considers himself a pet
parent, also compares his dogs to kids, “They’re like kids. When I say it is bath
time, Kiki will actually go in the bathroom, jump into the tub and get in the tub.
Buster goes and hides under the couch or the bed. I have to drag him out to give
him his bath.” Parents of older children construct their pet parenting in different
ways than the parents of younger children, although they both fall back on com-
parisons to make their points.
In contrast to the feelings of guilt experienced by parents of younger chil-
dren, the parents of older children discuss the joys of providing physically and
emotionally for their pets in their pet parenting. Sofia shows how parents of
older children emphasize sameness between pet parenting and parenting older
children but also how both she and her pets receive benefits from providing for
First thing in the morning I peel carrots, and I give them [the dogs] carrots. They love
carrots. And in the middle of the day I’ll cut an apple because they love apples. If my
animals look like they missed a meal, they haven’t. It’s that I feed them so much
because I love them so much and I figure it’s not going to hurt them that much. I
18 Humanity & Society XX(X)
enjoy, like this morning I made eggs for them. I enjoy cooking them food. Where like
now, for my other kids, I don’t have to cook them anything, except for Lance. Kristen
and Jake take care of themselves. I enjoy when they [pets] have joy of food. It makes
me happy. When I get them a new toy, it makes me happy. When I can do things for
them and it brings them joy, it makes me happy. When they have an itch and I take them
to the vet and stop it, it makes me happy.
Sofia compares preparing food for her children with preparing food for her dogs. She
also discusses the joy she feels when her dogs feel joy. Oliver discusses how after the
children are grown, there is more time to be a pet parent, “Like I said, you’re busy
raising the kids. You’re feeding them or changing their diapers and doing all that. So,
it’s a whole different ball game. Once they’re grown up and gone out, then you have
a pet and you’re nurturing the pet now.”
Charlotte compares pet parenting with parenting children and explains the uncon-
ditional love her dog provides and how, in some ways, pet parenting is more reward-
ing because pets don’t become difficult adults:
I don’t think it’s like, you don’t have to worry about them going out and getting into
stuff, but you also have to be firm with them .... That’s what is funny about dogs. They
do still act like little kids. They don’t grow up to become bad, old, mean angry adults
with a lot of issues. They’re always there. They can’t run away from you. They’re there.
They can’t talk back to you. They can’t be mean like that to you. They can’t have an
attitude. They totally love you, unconditionally. You could be whatever, fat, skinny,
black, white, purple, whatever. It doesn’t matter. I think they stay innocent and sweet
and always have that little kid in them.
Pet parenting for these parents of older children emphasizes both comparisons
(similar to parents of younger children) and intimacy (similar to childless individ-
uals). Whether perceptions of pet parenting shift once human children grow older
and need less attention or parents of older children introduce a different relationship
with their pets from the start is not clear. Participants who have experienced first-
hand parenting of human and nonhuman children shed insights into how similar the
two are in terms of accounts of caregiving/work and feelings of unconditional love.
But within these stories of their relationships with both human and nonhuman animal
children is the suggestion that parenting pets is more consistently and uncondition-
Companion animals have come to occupy a “social place” in our households
(DeMello 2012:155) including our parenting roles. This study sought to understand
parenting within interspecies families and whether people who count cats and dogs
as family construct this relationship as a form of parenting. This study shows that
Owens and Grauerholz 19
although all participants claim that their cats and dogs are family members, they did
not all identify as pet parents. Additionally, interspecies family form (childless and
parents of younger vs. older children) influences how these relationships are con-
structed. Those currently caring for their own younger children in the home often
emphasized differences in parenting children and pets. These parents spoke from a
place of being deep in the trenches of dealing with diapers, breastfeeding, and a lack
of sleep. They were often exhausted and expressed some guilt over not having as
much time for their nonhuman children. In some ways, these parents’ comments
reflect a kind of differential parenting—treating children, in this case, human and
nonhuman children, differently. It is unclear whether in these households, pets serve
as “props” for parents to manage the impression that they are good parents. After all,
given the cultural pressure to parent intensively and the value placed on children in
Western cultures, how acceptable would it be for parents to openly and explicitly
reveal that they place equal value to their human and nonhuman animals? Freed
from such pressures, parents of older children spoke from a place of retrospection as
their children had grown into adults. These participants emphasized similarities
between parenting children, cats, and dogs but also hinted that parenting pets is,
in many ways, more rewarding.
The pet parenting stories of the childless or child-free emphasized teaching and
training cats and dogs to behave in public and with others, training and practicing for
potential future children, and constructing family with traditional parenting lan-
guage. The similarities between narratives of human child-rearing and animal
child-rearing suggest the latter to be an alternative pathway to parenthood. In the
twenty-first century, childlessness has increased, parenthood is increasingly being
seen as a choice, and women are having children at later ages (Cherlin 2010; Smock
and Greenland 2010). When and how women and men choose to parent are increas-
ingly diverse, adoption and new reproductive technologies being some of other
recognizable pathways to parenthood. We argue, similar to Blackstone (2014), that
pet parenting may be one more strategy available to people to engage in parenting or
as Shir-Vertesh (2012) suggests “to love and feel loved, without the difficulties
associated with having a child” (p. 423). We did not ask our respondents whether
they were childless due to infertility or choice, and there may be important differ-
ences between these two groups in terms of how they perceive pet parenting that
may reveal more nuanced patterns in pet parenting among individuals and couples
without human children (see, e.g., Laurent-Simpson 2017).
Defining oneself as a pet parent is not necessarily based on actions; that is, pet
parents in our study do not necessarily provide greater care to their pets than non-pet
parents nor do they necessarily go beyond what any pet owner should do. The pet
parents in our study also did not necessarily draw upon the entire cultural parenting
script (e.g., teaching a child the values to succeed in the job market), but they did rely
on key aspects such as socialization. Constructionists have argued that instead of
thinking about the family as a monolith, researchers should consider how the family
is used narratively to accomplish particular goals (Holstein and Gubrium 2008). The
20 Humanity & Society XX(X)
same could be said for parenting. Similar to the “family-in-use,” there could be a
“parenting-in-use” approach to understanding these new pathways. The foundations
are already in place. Researchers have shown how parenting styles are socially
constructed (Ambert 1994; Schaub 2010), how motherhood is socially constructed
(Fonda, Eni, and Guimond 2013; Rousseau 2013), how fatherhood is socially con-
structed (Jordan 2014; Lupton and Barclay 1997), and how parents construct chil-
dren’s identities even before birth (Afflerback et al. 2014). Researchers have also
documented how the transition to parenthood is constructed (LaRossa and Sinha
2006), focusing on participants who identified as expecting parents. Motherhood and
fatherhood are largely treated as constructed realities instead of an objective one by
many gender and family scholars, but constructions of parenting are still largely
based on an assumption that human children are involved. This study documented
how people are able to do and accomplish parenting without having human children
at all. These findings show how pet parenting is and is not constructed and the ways
interspecies families could be conceptualized as a new pathway to parenthood. We
argue that the growing prevalence of interspecies families and the ways they are
changing the makeup of American families deserves scholarly attention.
We would like to extend our gratitude to the participants who opened up their homes and
shared their stories with us.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of
1. “Younger” children refer to humans middle school-aged or younger. “Older” children refer
to humans high school-aged or older. Since no major differences were found within each of
these groups, younger and older children are used here to describe the human children of
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