DALLAS — Andrea Laurent-Simpson, an SMU sociologist and research assistant professor, argues that pets have become part of the American family.
During the COVID pandemic, families have been adopting pets for emotional support. But in a new book published last month, “Just Like Family: How Companion Animals Joined the Household,” Laurent-Simpson draws on demographic trends in the household from previous years.
These changes in family structures influence the relationships between the human and nonhuman members of the family, her research shows.
Laurent-Simpson adopted an approach in sociology and social psychology called identity theory. This framework argues that the ways individuals develop their internal identities has to do with different cultural definitions of particular roles within society.
Her family includes three dogs named Sam, Sadie and Tickles, as well as two children ages 11 and 14.
Laurent-Simpson explained that people indirectly negotiate with one another over what those roles are going to look like and whether they’re going to be allowed to perform these roles with each other.
Researchers using the identity theory framework say that identities are based on how people interact with one another, influenced by changing cultural demands and expectations. “Just thinking about [human-to-human] interaction as impacting identity formation is inaccurate,” Laurent-Simpson said.
Her data from families without children indicated that companion animals, like dogs and cats, can fill in for the child role in a family where there are no human children present. She said that these families seem to be deriving some of the similar emotional and psychological fulfillment from nurturing and caring for a dog or cat.
Many factors influence whether women have children, including career advancement and higher education and shifting cultural expectations, she said. Her research suggests that the meaningful relationships that companion animals provide could be among the contributing reasons women are delaying having children.
And although research shows that people are spending lots of money on their pets, having a dog or a cat is much cheaper than having a child, she said.
Older adults with grown children also seem to take on a caretaking role for their pets, Laurent-Simpson said. She added that she has interviewed some empty-nesters who in some ways approximate the role of “grandparent” by helping their adult children pay for pet expenses and routinely watching over the pets while their adult children are at work.
Leslie Irvine, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, said that the role of pets as children within a family is not identical to that of human children. Even if couples are walking their puppy around in a stroller, she said, they are not “just furry toddlers.”
“We’re just relying on language that’s familiar to us,” Irvine said.
In families with both children and companion pets, Laurent-Simpson said that the kids tend to see the dog as their confidant, especially when they’re younger.
“The book is an important addition to the literature, mainly because it’s so carefully researched, and there’s so much supporting evidence for her claims,” Irvine said. She added that this work expands how researchers understand the term “family.”
A challenge with this type of work on human-animal interactions is that researchers cannot directly assess the animal’s perspective, Irvine said. This has contributed, she said, to some researchers in sociology characterizing this work as trivial.
Irving recalled how creating the Animals and Society section dedicated to the study of human-animal interactions within the professional organization American Sociological Association was not initially well received.
“It is part of the drift from poverty and social injustice towards boutique issues like animal rights,” wrote Charles Perrow in 2000. He was an emeritus professor of sociology at Yale University until his death in 2019.
“More than 50% of American households include dogs or cats,” Irvine said, citing survey data on pet ownership from the American Veterinary Medical Association. “If that’s the case, then it deserves understanding, rather than dismissing.”
Wendy Manning, a professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University, said that when people who study family demography think about family, they typically focus on how people are tied together by blood, marriage or adoption. U.S. census forms have traditionally reflected those assumptions about family. But, Manning said, researchers acknowledge that this definition doesn’t necessarily account for every configuration of what people consider meaningful familial relationships.
“We have broadened our scope of how we define families,” Manning said, referencing other family configurations like those involving couples who live together or larger multigenerational family units.
Manning, who has a French bulldog, said that pets are meaningful parts of people’s families.
Laurent-Simpson said that she had always been interested in doing research that went “against the grain.” But her own experience as a pet owner motivated her to take a closer look at the relationships between people and their pets.
About 16 years ago, Laurent-Simpson couldn’t believe her veterinarian’s diagnosis that her dog at the time had lymphoma. She made several more visits with veterinarians and ended up at Texas A&M University Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, where a veterinary oncology resident confirmed the dog was really sick.
“Going through that process, and especially going through that particular visit, I started to make some realizations as a sociologist that I was inextricably bound with this animal in a way that was different than just having a pet that I cared about and loved,” Laurent-Simpson said. “I was really more bound with her because of the process of grief and denial that I was going through as if she were a human.”
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