Whether they bark, meow, squeak, chirp or hiss, pets are treasured household members for most Americans at some point, and recent surveys show more and more people are welcoming animals into their homes and treating them as family.
Two-thirds of American households (about 71.1 million) have at least one pet, according to a survey of pet owners conducted last year by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. That number was an increase from the 56 percent of households that owned a pet in 1988, the first year the survey was conducted.
And 45 percent of pet owners have more than one pet, according to American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals science advisor Stephen Zawistowski.
There is now a "huge rise in the number of pets" in the United States, said Humane Society spokesperson Stephanie Shain.
These pets, especially cats and dogs, are also increasingly considered to be an essential part of a family, with U.S. pet owners spending more time and money (estimated at nearly $41 billion in 2007) on the health and happiness of their pets in recent years. Things that would once have seemed extravagant — doggy daycares, pet cemeteries, and an expanding array of pet surgeries and treatments — are now as common as, well, the family dog.
While owning a pet is almost the norm today, in eras past, it was a luxury, says Alan Beck, a veterinary professor with Purdue University's Center for the Human-Animal Bond. While farmers may have kept cats to rid their barns of mice and dogs to herd or help with hunting, keeping an animal solely as a companion was something for which only the wealthy had the free time and disposable income.
But as the American middle class emerged and grew in the 20th century, all of that changed and pets, like cars and TV sets, became something that anyone could have.
"More people have discretionary time, discretionary income," Beck said. "So you don't have to be one of the upper echelon to have a pet."
Pet ownership in America really began to take off after World War II, Zawistowski said, as families not only earned more income, but began to move to the suburbs, where they had more room to keep pets.
Adding to this was the changing notion of what constituted the typical American family, which was shaped by how families were portrayed on TV and in the movies. In addition to a mom, dad and kids, these fictional families had a dog and cat, sending the message that pets were an essential part of home life.
"These all started to create the image of what the American household, or the American home, was supposed to look like" Zawistowski said.
Pets aren’t just a part of the household like the TV or computer is—they are more and more thought of as full-fledged family members. Beck said that 40 percent of people who keep pictures of their spouse and children in their wallet also keep pictures of their pets, "because it is a member of the family."
There's also the strong sense of grief many owners feel when a pet dies, plus the consoling response of family and friends.
"It's very much accepted that it's a real loss," Shain said.
Pet owners can now to keep their pet's ashes in an urn or purchase a headstone or marker in a pet cemetery, and friends and co-workers can send a condolences card from Hallmark.
"In some ways, an event is culturally relevant when Hallmark makes a card," Zawistowski said.
Pets are increasingly recognized by society as an important part of their owners' lives. This is particularly the case with dogs, as more opportunities have cropped up to make it easier to keep a canine companion.
The problem of what to do with a dog while the owner is at work now has several solutions: More businesses are allowing people to bring their dogs to work (the Humane Society just instituted such a policy), doggy daycares are springing up and people are increasingly allowed to telecommute or work from home.
Some stores and bars even allow dogs to accompany their owners inside.
"We're allowing dogs more and more into our lives in places where they absolutely didn't used to be allowed," Shain said.
Television shows on networks such as Animal Planet that focus on pets also serve to reinforce the norm of having a pet, Beck added.
Why are we obsessed with our pets? - LiveScience - MSNBC.com