Dissing And Deconstructing The Terms 'Pet Parents' And 'Furkids'

Being a “pet parent” isn’t always the case for pet owners.

Using the term "pet parent" can elicite a strong response.

Courtesy Gina Cioli/I-5 Studios

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More than once a week I’ll find myself hurling the kind of motherly invectives I normally reserve for infants toward my 15-year-old son: "Use your words, Boy,” I’ll snarl as he skulks away in his ill-fitting Metallica T-shirt, launching a few questionably guttural inaudibles in my general direction.

Teenagers are a breed unto their own, so he may perhaps be forgiven for the kind of vocalizations more commonly associated with ill-tempered felines and brachycephalic dogs. Unfortunately, no such excuses can be charitably applied to plenty of my otherwise normally even-tempered readers.

I was recently treated with similar grumbling disdain when I happened to post a Facebook comment referencing a Vetstreet article (Jan. 23) on the pitfalls of "pet parenting.” Here’s a sample detailing the most eloquent of these tirades:

"What stresses me out [about ‘pet parenting’]? Being called a ‘pet parent’; the idea of turning ownership into ‘guardianship’; the rising tide of the ‘furkid’ mentality; and the idea that I am judged by the oft-biased and sponsor-bought litmus tests of others as a pet owner by the way I handle, vet, feed and train my dog.”


And it’s not the first time I’ve been treated to a series of slams after trotting out a term I so very rarely use–incidentally, for many of the same reasons the commenter cites. Indeed, since my early blogging days (as far back as 2005), I received more than my fair share of flak after applying the term "pet parent."

In fact, I once recall receiving a vituperative firestorm of angry emails after invoking the term "furkid” in a not-quite-tongue-in-cheek-enough manner. (In my defense, I absolutely abhor the term.)


But here’s the thing: As an avid student of Internet word-play, the term is not only more universally applied to our patients by their owners, it’s being used more liberally in the news media, among editors of consumer-directed pet publications, in consumer product advertising, and—if some veterinary practice websites are any guide—by members of our profession, too.

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Its defenders argue that the term is apropos in lieu of "owner" due to the unsavory smack that accompanies the concept of ownership. Pets are not toaster ovens, after all. And "pet owner” not only offensively implies that pets are on par with consumer not-so-durables, the term underscores a legal concept that’s no longer the law of the land.

Indeed, under U.S. law, animals may not yet enjoy the wider spectrum of protections that might arise should advocates of legal guardianship get their way, but our courts have long established that all animals are legally distinct enough from insentient goods in a variety of ways that allow their rights to transcend that of mere property.

Yet, in general, I can’t abide the "furkid" and "pet parent" terminology either, finding it wanting not just because it’s inappropriately cloying and more than a tad inaccurate, but because it’s insidiously demeaning to the human-animal bond, to boot. After all, "furry children" is a term that smacks more of patronizing disrespect than of a firm foothold on the steep climb towards a greater respect of pets in our culture.

How so? Consider that this vocabulary serves to humanize pets overtly—a problem whose implications and limitations I don’t have to explain to veterinary professionals who deal in teacups donning pink polka-dotted dresses and neotenously deformed purebreds.

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What’s even more discomfiting is that they also serve as a transparent ploy to drive pet product and service sales—a fact that leads most of us to strike an uneasy truce with these less-than-perfect terms.

Which is why I’ll readily cave to the backlash from those who argue that not only are these words all wrong for the obvious reasons I’ve just mentioned, but because Madison Avenue is clearly attempting to spoon feed the masses an unrealistic, unsustainable notion of petdom.

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Despite this clarity, I too have dared toss off the "pet parent" terminology, usually after wondering whether I’ve been too sensitive on the subject. And, so far, this kind of muddling has been effectively shot down by articulate arguments like the commenter’s, above.

But in my defense, these occasional lapses are mostly to do with a dearth of any reasonable alternative. And because, truth be told, "pet owner" earns me more than my share of hate mail, too.

Which only goes to show that responding to criticism with grunts and groans as adolescents of a certain age are inclined to do isn’t always such a lousy policy–especially when you don’t have an ear-tweaking mother to contend with. 

Dr. Khuly is a small animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com.

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