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Should pets be considered children or property?

A Saskatoon judge has ruled that dogs should be considered property and not children. Is he right?. File/Getty Images

Fur babies are not the same as human babies, a Saskatoon judge has ruled.

Justice Richard Danyliuk recently handed down the ruling that dogs should not be considered the same as children – but rather property – after a divorcing couple fought over custody of their two dogs Kenya and Willow, CBC reports.

“Many dogs are treated as members of the family with whom they live,” Danyliuk said in his ruling. “But after all is said and done, a dog is a dog. At law it is property, a domesticated animal that is owned. At law it enjoys no familial rights.”

His arguments:

  • Parents do not purchase children from breeders in Canada;
  • We tend not to breed our children with other humans to secure the best bloodlines (nor do we charge for these services);
  • When kids are sick, we tend not to weigh the economic cost/benefit to decide if kids get medical care, nor do we end kids’ lives to prevent suffering;
  • When kids misbehave, we don’t muzzle them or put them to death should they act violently.

Danyliuk’s decision has pet owners and parents (of human children) divided.

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“I cried at work when my dog died last year and I never cry,” says 2115david on Reddit. “That being said, as a parent of human children, it drives me crazy when people equate dogs with children. They’re fantastic, they’re part of the family… but they’re dogs.”

“There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to keep my dogs happy, healthy, safe and comfortable,” write Reddit user genghiskhannie. “As my nearly [sic] 13-year-old golden retriever sits beside me, I know that someday sooner than I’d like, I’m going to have to make some tough choices.”

“I understand the passion with which people believe that pets are valuable creatures and would find vehement disapproval with me even using the word ‘pet,’” dyeus on Reddit says. “But there has to be a middle ground between treating a pet as a piece of property, such as your kitchen blender, and a child.”

Which begs the question: should pets be treated like children, property or domestic animals who are part of the family?

Pets are great, but they’re not children

Blogs – “mommy” and otherwise – are furiously refuting any claims made by “pet parents” that pets are (or at least can be) considered stand-ins for kids.

“Animals are not people,” writes Theresa Edwards on Mommyish. “They don’t think or act like people, and forgetting that can be dangerous. It doesn’t mean you love them less, it just means you are treating animals with the respect they deserve by appreciating that you are not an animal and they are not people.”

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Parenting writer M.A. Wallace agrees.

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“We should remember that pets are extensions of us,” Wallace recently wrote in The Cut. “We keep them to meet our needs, not theirs… You can’t ‘parent’ a pet because you aren’t teaching it how to leave you and become an independent being.”

Both Edwards and Wallace have a point.

While Charles Darwin theorized humans were similar to animals (but have just come farther up the evolutionary chain), Marc Hauser, director of the cognitive evolution lab at Harvard, disagrees.

According to Hauser, humans have four distinct mental abilities that separate us from other animals, which are detailed on Live Science.

  1. Generative computation: Humans can come up with (what seems to be) a limitless variety of words and concepts. We do this using recursive operations (which allows us to apply what we’ve learned to create new expressions) and combinatorial operations (combining learned elements to create new concepts);
  2. Promiscuous combination of ideas: The ability to entertain areas of knowledge like art, space, sex, causality and friendship to generate new laws, social relationships and technologies;
  3. Mental symbols: It’s our way of processing experiences and helps us form language and communication;
  4. Abstract thought: Taking abstract things and thinking about them on a more complex level.

Parents of human children will also argue the dynamics of owning a pet and raising a child are vastly different.

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With a dog, for example, you can leave it at home when you’re gone – with a child, supervision is needed, Tango blogger Elizabeth Broadbent says.

“If I failed my duties [as a parent], I’m not facing a chewed-up family heirloom; I’m looking at a dead kid and a [Defense Security Service] inquiry.”

In favour of fur babies

Can taking care of a dog or cat really be the same as raising a child? Maybe not. But there’s no denying they’re still part of the family.

In fact, more than eight in 10 pet parents say their dogs are an equal member of their family, according to 2011 survey done by Milo’s Kitchen, a dog treat company.

Furthermore, 54 per cent of Americans consider themselves to be “pet parents” instead of “pet owners.”

Despite what naysayers think, a bond – similar to that of a bond between mother and child – exists on some level between pet parents and their dogs, a 2015 Azabu University found.

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When “fur parents” and their dogs stare into each other’s eyes, it increases the level of oxytocin – a hormone that plays a part in maternal bonding, trust and altruism – in both the human and the dog.

Steven Chang, an assistant professor of psychology and neurobiology at Yale who studies oxytocin in animals, told the The New York Times that through the process of domestication a relationship has formed.

Dogs, he says, have come to see humans as their key social partners, while humans have come to view the relationship in a similar manner.

“In a way, domesticated dogs could hijack our social circuits, and we can hijack their social circuits,” Chang says.

But what about the animals themselves?

Research from Emory University in Georgia found that dogs experience feelings of love and affection in the same way humans do – and is processed in the same area of the brain.

Another 2014 study found that mothers had very similar reactions when shown pictures of their human child, as well as their pet. Those researchers found overlap in activity patterns in regions of the brain that involved reward, emotion and affiliation, as well as pleasantness and excitement.

“Mothers reported similar emotional ratings for their child and dog, which elicited greater positive emotional responses than unfamiliar children and dogs,” the study says. “These results demonstrate that the mother-child and mother-dog bond share aspects of emotional experience and patterns of brain function.” 

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So what’s your take?

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