Can pets replace children?

Having pets is the most natural thing in the world. Most of us grow up with pets and cannot imagine our lives without them. Pets fulfil various roles in people’s lives, some in the most natural forms. But in other cases, an owner’s relationship with their pet can become a bit unbalanced, or as some would term it, a bit weird.

In this article, we will be discussing how pets often take the place of children. In some cases couples can’t have children, or they don’t want children, and in other cases older couples struggle to cope with ‘empty nest syndrome’ and their pets help to fill the gap.

Real-life scenario

Susan van der Merwe* says that she most certainly suffered from empty nest syndrome when the kids left home. “I already had two cats when the children spread their wings – whether I needed to fill the space or looked for something to take care of, I would never know. However, the urge to get dogs was there and I did.”

Filling the gap

Do the dogs fill the gap left by the children? Susan says she suppose it does. “I interact with my dogs all the time – talking, playing and there is loads of affection and laughter. I have to tell them off when they are naughty, take them to the vet when they are ill, and I always ensure that they eat healthy.”

Is it normal? “What is the ‘norm’ and what is considered ‘balanced’? I don’t dress them up or treat them like children – I treat them like dogs. I am always concerned that if they are not allowed to act like dogs, it will confuse and stress them,” explains Susan.

She loves the presence of her three Dachshunds around her: their smell, the affection she receives every moment, and the excitement when she returns after five minutes or one week away for work, even if her husband is there to take care of them.

“Each one has his own personality and expresses himself differently. They love snuggling with me on the couch and competing over who is going to lie on my chest or near my face. Our little routines before breakfast and dinner are so precious. They are protective over me, especially when strangers are near, but they are great with kids and people I allow in,” tells Susan.

Empty nest syndrome

Ida Roux* says that her pets definitely filled the gap after her children left home. “We’ve always had pets – cats, dogs and even rabbits at a time. But I got my African Grey after my eldest left home. When my second and last child also left, I adopted a Yorkshire Terrier. Both pets are adopted from people who couldn’t look after them anymore.”

She tells how both animals filled the gap when empty nest syndrome kicked in. “The house became so quiet, but the animals fulfil the nurturing instinct of a mother. Although, they will never be on the same level as my children are. My children will always remain my children.”

How do the pets fill the gap? She says that each pet has his own personality and ways of doing things. “I talk to both animals. The African Grey will talk back and we will laugh at the things he says, and how he comprehends conversations. The Yorkie on the other hand has a way to tell me that he is hungry, or he will fetch me when my husband is not feeling well. There is much interaction and communication occurring between us,” says Ida.

She says that she doesn’t treat the animals as if they are humans, even though she talks to them, and she doesn’t spend more money on them than she would have if the children were still at home.

“I didn’t specifically adopt the animals when my children left home, it just happened that way. But I am glad it did happen, because I love and enjoy the company of the pets,” explains Ida.

Expert opinion

Dr Louise Olivier, a clinical and counselling psychologist, who uses a Great Dane in her therapy sessions, gave us her expert advice on the subject.

“Many people have pets who do not have children for the simple reason that pets are able to give unconditional love and affection. They can be nurtured but can also give nurturing. They do not criticise but appreciate everything that is done for them. They can lie at your feet and on your lap and suddenly create the most peaceful atmosphere in the room. Pets can join a couple in training them, feeding them, taking them to the veterinary surgeon, or even showing them.

“So, pets expand the life of humans to another dimension like children would do. They are also very sensitive to the emotional hurt of humans and can be very comforting. Even a koi pond at a home can be very soothing and people also manage to bond with even fishes,” explains Dr Olivier.

What is normal?

She adds that pets cannot fill the space of children, and children cannot fill the space of pets. Children are not able to give unconditional love like parents, while pets can give unconditional love. Pets have to be looked after while children, when grown up, can care for parents. Pets usually have a shorter lifespan than children and parents tend to protect children, while pets often protect and give their lives for their owners.

“Pets in fact are more sensitive to emotional hurt than children. It is two pleasures in life that exist side by side, but it is not the same thing. Animals add another dimension to our lives, but cannot substitute other people or children. Equally it is my opinion that retirement villages and old-age homes should allow pets, because grown-up children have a life of their own while pets can give solace, love, understanding and nurturing to senior citizens.

“It is not a psychologically sound principal to ban pets from retirement villages and old-age homes as is often done these days,” says Dr Olivier.

A good balance

Dr Olivier explains that the balance between pets and children lies in activities we do with each and the role that each plays in our lives. “It is going overboard to go shopping with a pet because they are mostly not allowed into shops and must wait outside, while children have to be socialised and should go shopping with parents. It is going overboard not to go anywhere because the pets must stay at home. Human beings do need breaks from everyday life as children do.

“The secret is to organise someone trustworthy to look after the pets while the owner is away. It is going overboard to exclusively give pets human food, as there is scientifically developed pet food available,” explains Dr Olivier.

She adds that although it is going overboard to include pets in inheritances, provision should be made for them to be cared for when the owner dies. “The duties towards pets are also different than the duties of a parent. We do not have to teach pets moral values, we do not have to teach pets social skills, but only have to socialise them; we seldom are deeply disappointed in pets, while children can be very cruel and disappointing towards parents.”

Warning signs

Dr Olivier advises that the warning signs when people start treating animals like children are when their actions are inappropriate for animals, for example buying jewellery for them. “Animals have no interest in jewellery, only in treats appropriate for them,” warns Dr Olivier.

Other examples of inappropriateness, according to Dr Olivier, include:

  • Giving them human food, which is not good for their bodies, because their owners think they like the food.
  • Expecting animals to behave like children instead of being the animals they are.
  • People having a pet lion, for instance, and treating him like a domestic animal, while he will always be a wild animal and belong in the wild.
  • Training animals to attack humans like personal guards, while animals in fact are there to give pleasure to people and protect them, but not to kill human beings.
  • Training animals to do activities that are not in their nature – like surfboarding, riding a skateboard and doing unrelated tricks – the latter demeans the animal.

 The difference between children and pets

“It is important to understand that each group has their own needs. The needs of children are different from the needs of pets. The developmental phases of children and pets are also different. For example, my puppy Great Dane of six months old can do much more than a six-month-old baby and his needs are different. He needs to eat food developed for him to make his bones strong because he grows so fast.

“Babies need food developed for them to ensure healthy human growth. Human beings need moral development, cognitive stimulation, sexual counselling; they need to know the difference between right and wrong on a far different level than that of animals. Animals need grooming in a different way than human children do. Animals are lucky and do not need clothes, but in colder climates they need blankets. Clothes restrict their movement and make them feel uncomfortable,” says Dr Olivier.

As long as children are treated like children, and pets remain animals and are treated in such a way, the relationship between human parents and their pets can be described as normal.

*Names changed to protect their identity.