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If you are a pet parent who enjoys Instagram reels, you have probably seen one that’s trending right now. The videos are posted with the audio “I’m mommy’s baby", implying that the pet is the pet parent’s child.
Anthropomorphism is a condition where we attribute human emotions and experiences to non-human objects or species. For example, if you get home from work to find your slippers damaged, you might assume the face your dog makes, with its head hanging and eyes lowered, is one of shame. That’s because you would feel guilty as a human for doing something like that. However, what they are displaying is fear. It is a response to your agitation over the damaged slipper, not guilt for their action.
Although anthropomorphism has improved the lives of many pets by making humans more sensitive to their discomfort and pain, taking it to the extreme can be damaging. While cats are often spared this, owing to their inherent independence and their ability to make it obvious, dogs are not. When I tell a lot of dog owners that it’s perfectly normal for their dog to eat just once a day, they are shocked. “Can I survive on just one meal every day? Then how can my baby?" they question. I have had clients who prepare three-course meals for their pets.
Overfeeding, feeding table scraps, and getting a dog used to being hand-fed are common displays of extreme anthropomorphism. And obesity is a direct result of this.
Obesity leads to its own set of ailments, so veterinarians are witnessing an increase in the incidence of arthritis, diabetes and other lifestyle-related diseases. Table scraps can cause stomach problems, especially with spicy Indian cuisine. Indiscriminate feeding can lead to malnutrition. Hand-fed dogs may become accustomed to eating in this manner, making it difficult for the owner to travel or leave the dog at a kennel.
Since we see them as humans, we dress them up and celebrate their birthdays. While clothes and shoes are generally safe, it is important to note that they are not natural and might cause problems if carried too far. Thicker clothing can disrupt thermoregulation, especially in flat-faced dogs, and result in a heat stroke. Some materials could lead to skin infections if hygiene is not maintained. Since dogs sweat through their paws, shoes must be washed and dried regularly. Prolonged use of shoes can lead to fungal infections in paws.
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Then there are birthday parties, where having a lot of dogs can be an unpleasant experience for your dog. It is a human concept to cut a cake and share it. For a dog, it is a resource that is being dispersed against its will. The dog interprets it as a direct threat to its territory.
The projection of human emotions is also extended to love and mating. Dogs and cats can love us unconditionally but their interpersonal interactions are not the same as ours. They don’t mate for life, and they don’t mate for love. Their behaviour is driven by an instinct to reproduce.
Pet owners frequently tell me they will consider spaying their pet after she has given birth to one litter so she can experience motherhood. In pets, however, maternal sentiments are fleeting, lasting only till they are feeding the babies.
Hugging, a very human expression of affection, may not be tolerated by all pets. Similarly, carrying them frequently like a human baby can limit their mobility, while also denying them control over surrounding stimuli. This can lead to anxiety or phobias. Constantly mollycoddling also increases occurrences of separation anxiety.
The very beauty in our companion animals lies in the fact that they are not humans. We have to learn to love them in a way that is right for them. Let them be the species they are.
Dr Nameeta Nadkarni is a practising veterinary soft tissue surgeon and pet blogger from Mumbai, who loves to play the piano in her free time and is ruled by her whimsical cat, Catbury, at home.