Pet lovers may finally have a paw up in the argument that their pets really are child substitutes—at least when it comes to how they feed them. New research suggests there may be a connection between child-feeding and pet-feeding style, when it comes to determining obesity in both.
According to James McWilliams at Pacific Standard, anywhere from 34 to 59 percent of dogs are overweight, and research has found that overweight dogs tend to have overweight owners. Researcher Alexander J. German used this connection as a starting place for a study just published in the British Journal of Nutrition.
From German's abstract:
The care that people provide for their pets mirrors that which parents provide for children, and pets are commonly viewed as child substitutes. These similarities raise obvious questions about whether different styles of pet ownership exist, and what part they may play in attitudes to feeding as well as predisposition to obesity in pets. Future work could focus on determining to what extent styles of pet ownership mirror parenting styles, whether there are links to obesity in dogs and cats. Knowledge regarding the owner-pet bond might provide comparative insights into the links between parenting styles and childhood obesity.
Back at PSMag, McWilliams mentions that these connections have a lot to do with what's called your "family food environment," which includes all the daily habits that describe how you eat. In front of the TV? At the table? On the couch? Standing over the sink? How much sugary food is lying around as an option when you're bored? A study looking at the family food environment's impact on kids' eating habits (560 children, the average age being 6) found that—just as with adolescents—the more hours of TV watched, the higher the rate of obesity.
German's study looks at the four main parenting styles—authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and uninvolved. Interestingly, obesity occurs where you'd expect it, with the indulgent parenting style that over-rewards with snacks and treats, but also where you might not: with parents who are too controlling (authoritarian), which often leads to secret binge-eating.
But what does all this have to do with Mr. Winkles?
[German] suggests, for example, that an "authoritarian" parenting style is evident in a pet owner who feeds his animals the same food at the same time every day, denies their companion animals snacks and scraps, and requires a pet to sit before eating. Similarly, an "indulgent" parenting style comes through in a pet owner who allows his animal to eat when and what he wants, permits the feeding of table scraps, and even feeds by hand rather than dropping food in a bowl.
While this certainly makes sense, I have to ask: Unlike the binge-eating child who might stealth overeat in response to strict regimenting, how could a more strictly fed pet sneak treats on the down low, anyway? At least in that arena, the parenting style would not produce the same outcome with pets as it does with children. McWilliams adds, citing German, that it's always important to note that weight gain and weight loss in pets or children is complicated—which is why this is more a topic for further study rather than a conclusive position.
But I have no trouble accepting that there is a connection here somewhere, and to be honest I had hoped when reading the original article that the study was not about food, but rather about parenting style in general.
Lots of people spoil their pets, and lots of people spoil their children. How you love is how you love. In the same way you repeat patterns with a boyfriend or girlfriend, it's not crazy to me to think that the way you might love a pet could be highly similar to your approach to loving an equally vulnerable, but headstrong toddler.
For instance, I like both dogs and cats, but I think I admire cats more for their mischief, autonomy, spirit. I don't think of a cat as needing me per se, but me more as a kind of adjunct to the cause of their existence. I help it along, but don't interfere too much. This stands in strong contrast to dog love, which seems so much more involved, hands on, give and take.
As a parent I put far more of a premium on encouraging my daughter's personality to flourish than I do on, say, obedience. In other words, I'm less interested in her tricks, and more interested in her growth, that she becomes a good, happy, kind person in the world with my assistance, which I would never think of as training per se. (Though plenty of parents do—from sleep training to potty training—and that works for them.)
What might also complicate matters in looking for a pet-child parenting connection is that pet-rearing is often a precursor to children, a trial run of sorts, which means it's a learning opportunity. What you might do with a pet might, luckily, actually teach you how not to be with a child.
For instance, I had a lovely cat named Romeo, a mischievous, extraordinarily friendly lap cat who I'm sure was part Maine Coon, even if no one else agreed. He was my first real pet as a young person in the world, and I indulged him. The best food, the best treats, the most love, all the things.
As a result, he verged on 16 pounds at one point, and the vet explained that this simply would not do. I loved that cat, no question, but I had yet to acquire the more thoughtful approaches I have now toward other life forms—which is to say I might not have even truly realized that I was doing him any harm by being what I thought was so incredibly loving at the time.
Now, of course, I would never indulge a child in that way. We're generous with some treats, but my kid has also had fruit juice less than ten times in her entire life. (As for discipline, well, you really just can't talk things out with a cat. But a cat would also never need so many goldfish crackers.)
Of course, one pet-human connection remains undisputed: looking alike. People really do look like their dogs, probably because they pick a dog that looks like them unconsciously. You're welcome to test that theory yourself here, with samples from the Westminster Dog Show.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.