Is dog your co-pilot? Or perhaps dogs, plural? As playful and satirical as such bumper stickers may be, Americans truly have become a nation devoted to their pets. Many have sought comfort and companionship from dogs and cats during the epidemic and quarantine, evidenced by the fact that shelters are literally running out of animals. “They’re going like hot cakes,” an operator of a Maryland animal shelter told the Washington Post earlier this month. Yet the frenzy to procure a pet to cure the coronavirus blues may reflect a far more concerning sickness.
In a recent op-ed, Arizona State University professor Fernanda Santos declared: “A snake bit my cat. Clearing out my bank accounts to save him was an easy choice.” Santos explains that treatment for her beloved “Rocky” exceeded the balances of both her checking and savings accounts, totally more than $6,200. Such an expense for a housepet, however arresting to some readers, is increasingly common for many Americans.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Surveys, between 2013 and 2019, expenses related to housepets were one of the fastest-growing spending categories. In 2013, Americans spent about $57.8 billion on their pets — comparable with what they spent on alcohol. By 2019, they were spending $15 billion more on canines and felines than on booze, amounting to a whopping $90 billion. Spending on dog treats alone rose 44 percent between 2015 to 2020, according to data firm Euromonitor.
Indeed, Ben & Jerry’s this month announced the debut of “Doggie Desserts”: four-ounce cups of mostly nondairy frozen treats, featuring flavors like “pumpkin with cookies” and “peanut butter and pretzels”. The treats — which will go for between $3-$5 — are nondairy because some dogs don’t tolerate lactose well. The famous ice cream brand even did taste-testing with dogs owned by company employees to ensure the very best product.
Some might say that such opulence is required given our current harrowing circumstances, defined by loneliness and depression — and not just of humans. In September, the Washington Post offered an entire separate insert in the daily print-edition discussing the effects of the coronavirus on our pets. “Pets are finding the pandemic disorienting. Their routines have been upended, and everyone’s wearing a mask,” observed one article. The WaPo even queried faithful readers on how their animals were coping with the pandemic — not well, we are told, as they suffer increased anxiety and put on the quarantine pounds. Thus another essay urges concerned readers, “Don’t let your pets get lonely when things go back to normal.”
But what is normal when it comes to the domesticated animals we welcome into our homes and declare to be members of our families? In the Catechism of the Catholic Church §2418 we read the following: “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.” Given that last year Americans spent approximately $100 billion on their pets, one must wonder who, or what, is the recipient of our greatest affections.
Certainly we seem to be treating our animals as well, if not better, than we treat many of our fellow citizens. We feed our pets decadent treats, buy them expensive toys, and clothe them in absurd luxury clothes while 59 million Americans live on some form of welfare, and more than 29 million American children receive low-cost or free lunches. We take the time to carefully analyze the emotional and psychological health of our animals while often remaining oblivious to the needs of our immediate neighbors. We spend hours walking our pets and entertaining them, while across every age cohort, volunteering among Americans has declined since 2005, according to the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute.
The Internet is loaded with articles from the likes of the Chicago Tribune, New Republic, and Fatherly.com, arguing that having a pet prepares one for parenthood. Indeed, I’ve heard many couples assert that owning a dog is a good trial run for having a child on the basis that they will share joint responsibility for a living creature. Yet many Americans increasingly choose never to even bother with “graduating” into parenting actual children, and remain forever ersatz mothers and fathers of four-legged creatures that, however adorable and enjoyable, simply are not persons.
Why does the Catholic Church teach that there must remain a categorical difference between the love we give to human persons and what we give to animals? For one, because humans are created in the image of God, and thus possess an unparalleled dignity among all of God’s creation. Secondly, humans, by virtue of their intellect and will, have an immaterial soul that is oriented toward transcendent ends and is superior to that of animals, who possess only sense-knowledge. And, thirdly, I would surmise that the Church perceives that there is a fundamental distinction in the kind of relationship one can have with an animal versus a human.
Dogs are devoted to their masters and can be trained to follow instructions. Cats, however fastidious and supercilious, will stay around as long as there’s food and a place to sleep. Not so humans. We are complex beings with unique personalities and histories, driven by all manner of motivations, some noble and others base. We are capable of both heroic virtue and sacrifice, as well as cowardice and greed. We can manifest true agape love, yet also wicked, destructive forms of hatred and violence. In a word, we are sinful humans in need of redemption.
Animals require no redemption. Christ did not incarnate in order to save and divinize our pets. He came to save and divinize us, all of us. As Christians, we are called to participate in Christ’s redemptive work on earth, which means demonstrating that same self-sacrificial love for our fellow man. I find it hard to imagine any circumstance under which it would be morally permissible to lavish any luxury good on a pet who is happy enough eating the cheapest fare.
Where we spend our time, affection, and income says a lot about what matters most to us. As our Lord once rebuked the wicked: “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Matt 25:42-43). It would be a shame if the reason why was because we were too busy pampering our pets.
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