Bowing down to our animal overlords

Last updated 09:37 10/08/2014
Kathryn Walters
PAUL JEFFERS/Fairfax Australia

PUPPY LOVE: Kathryn Walters holding Maxwell, who has a genetic neurological disorder.

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Kathryn Walters does not go on holiday with her husband. Someone always needs to stay home with the pets.

The Australian office manager spends thousands of dollars each year on her beloved cavalier spaniels - veterinary bills for Maximus, who has a neurological condition, have cost at least $4000. Walters also runs Cavalier Rescue, a volunteer organisation of people passionate about the welfare of the floppy-eared breed. If a foster dog needs medical attention, Walters just puts it on her credit card until she can pay herself back through fundraising. No cavalier will ever go without.

"You wouldn't just go and put a human down because they broke a leg ... you're not going to put a dog down because it broke a leg, you fix it," she said.

Walters is far from alone in her devotion to her pets.

La Trobe University's Pauleen Bennett, an expert in human-companion animal relationships, said that in the past the family dog or cat was part of the furniture, not something to be studied.  But there  is some evidence to suggest that, in the developed world, "deep and meaningful" relationships between some pets and their owners are becoming more common, she said. "Pets have moved into this grey area - rather than possessions, they're now seen as a family member by a lot of people."

The indulging of pets can range from the relatively commonplace - spending big on toys and treats, allowing pets to sleep on their owner's bed - to making significant  personal sacrifices.  Annie, for example has two dogs that are so exuberant and noisy that she avoids having large groups of people over, despite being largely housebound due to chronic fatigue syndrome. She feels they are well worth the inconvenience: "[I] can't believe how much [I] love them."

An increasing number of owners seem inseparable from their domestic animals. While the Walters will eschew family holidays to stay with their pets, there is a growing market for pet-friendly holidays. Accommodation Association of Australia chief executive Richard Munro says demand has grown in the past few years, with families wanting to take their dogs, cats and even birds with them on a break. Some caravan parks have changed their by-laws to cater to the market.

What is driving the phenomenon is less clear, but Dr Bennett said technological and medical advances may have contributed. People and animals have always lived closely together, but the availability of flea treatments, for example, could be why more people are allowing their pets to sleep on their beds. Greater disposable incomes mean people can afford to spoil their cat or dog.

But she suggests the pace of modern life may be driving people closer to their pets.

"We're so frantically busy we don't have time to spend doing things that are important and meaningful," Dr Bennett said.

"[Pets] can ground us a bit by living in the moment and caring about things we should all care about, that the sun came up this morning and the flowers are out."

Devoted love for a pet can cause its owner problems. Relationships Victoria counsels blended families starting new lives together to talk about the animals. Different expectations about how much to spend on veterinary bills and whether they can sleep on people's beds can cause tension.

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Bernadette Pasco, of the Victorian Financial and Consumer Rights Council said she had seen cases of people putting their pets' needs above their own for decades.

But community standards of what constituted good and responsible pet ownership had changed, which could put financial pressure those already struggling.

"I think the expectations have changed, people feel that they need to take them to the dog wash and they need to give them certain types of food ... it's similar to what we see with kids," she said.

But Dr Bennett says it is a common misconception that people who shower their animals with love, pricey toys and clothes are more likely to be lonely or lacking human friends.

The owner of dogs, horses, about 20 goats and a cat warns against judging people who are besotted with their pets.

"People put a lot of time and effort into their pets, but we also put a lot of time and effort into our children, our homes and gardens," she says.

"Our pets need us and value us and they're always glad to see us, so if we're going to spend time and money and energy on something, it's probably as good as anything."

- The Age

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