Practical > Companion Animals & Urban Wildlife > Companion Animals

Me and my pet
04 June 2005
Lucy Middleton

BARRY seems pleased with his new super-enhanced testicles that Jane got him as a treat from the silicon implant catalogue. She is already planning the wedding, and Barry looks so smart with his new haircut and Gucci jacket. But he does seem to be getting a little chubby. Ooh, and she must remember to get that life vest for him - she doesn't want him falling overboard on their sailing holiday. She is always worrying about him dying. He's not as young as he was. In fact he's 12, which is quite old...for a dog, that is.

Jane's behaviour is typical of a growing trend: extreme humanisation of pet animals. Theories abound to explain this: alienation from technological societies, loneliness, excess disposable income, confusion about what it means to be human, you name it. But the bottom line is that pets, in particular cats and dogs, are increasingly on the receiving end of the full range of human emotions. Like it or loathe it, they are substitutes for children, husbands, wives, work.

From the beginning of settled communities, our dealings with animals have included a "pet-type" relationship. But it's running wild. The US, for example, has its largest ever number of pets - 378 million. That is nearly 100 million more pets than people.

And the value of the US pet industry has been increasing for the past decade. It is expected to reach a staggering $35.9 billion this year - around the annual budget of the state of Massachusetts. And it's big business in the UK too: the industry was valued at 3.9 billion ($6.8 billion) in 2003 - more than the government's science spending. And Australians spend around A$2.2 billion (US$1.7 billion) on their pets annually, a figure higher than the foreign aid budget (A$2 billion).

And the nature of our expenditure is extraordinary. In the US, kidney transplants are available for cats and dogs, at $10,000 a go. Your pet can have cosmetic surgery, including breast and wrinkle reduction, have its claws painted and encrusted with jewels, and snuggle up with a ferret sleeping bag or maybe a self-warming pet mat.

Among the burgeoning "personal" practices, one of the most bizarre has to be pets marrying pets. Two cats, Phet and Ploy, hold the world record for the most expensive pet wedding. They were married in Thailand in September 1996 wearing matching pink outfits, at a total cost of $16,241. Humans are also reported to "marry" their pets and some have nice little certificates to prove their union.

And while we've been tinkering with the genetic make-up of pets for centuries through selective breeding, advanced genetic techniques are something else. Now there are plans to produce hypo-allergenic "sneeze-free" cats. These animals will be some of the first "lifestyle" pets, whose genes have been tweaked to "improve the ownership experience". They will be available from 2007, at a cost of around $3500 each.

Pet again

Then there's cloning. Some people are so attached to their pets that they will pay $50,000 for an exact replica. The first clone-to-order cat was "delivered" in December last year, and the first clone-to-order dog is expected this year.

But cloning, sophisticated pampering and genetic super-breeding aren't the only ways in which science is transforming the human-pet relationship. We are now demanding cyber and robotic pets in enormous numbers. When it comes to cyberpets, Tamagotchis have proved extraordinarily popular, with sales of over 47 million worldwide. These need a little effort to maintain, but all you really need is deft fingers to work the controls.

And robotic pets are coming on fast. Alongside the 6-year-old Aibo dog from Sony, there's now NeCoRo, the catbot from Omron, and Paro the seal, to name but a few. They are pets that you don't need to feed, walk or clean up after, and that you can turn off when you get bored. Better still, they won't defy you, or die suddenly.

But for cyber-sociologist Sherry Turkle from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it runs deeper. In robopets, she says, we have created something very powerful that offers the illusion of companionship without the uncomfortable demands of intimacy, that allows you to be a loner and yet never be alone. She has also noticed that some people are wary of pets that are too smart, tell you the time or wake you up.

But everything in the human-pet ecosystem has a niche, including the smart robopet. They could one day be companions to, and carers of, people with disabilities or the very elderly.

So when Barry gives up the ghost, Jane might find herself in the market for a doggy clone, while she looks for a robopet minder for granny, and fends off the smart arse robocat that has moved in next door.