What’s Behind The Pet Craze


I thought I had heard it all with the ad on National Public Radio for pajamas for every member of the family, including the cats and dogs. But now on sale are coats for your pet chicken. Obviously, Henny Penny, not only is the sky falling but our collected social sanity. But then my wife, ever the practical one, pointed out that if your hen has a tendency to fly over the fence around her chicken run, a coat over her wings would solve the problem. Why didn’t my mother think of that instead of clipping the wing feathers of errant hens?

Even the most fervent pet lover has to agree that we are going a little bit overboard on pet love. An editorial in the New York Times editorial section (Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014) tells about a couple who keep two rabbits in their house and if one or the other pees on the floor or wherever, well, you clean it up and go on just like you would for a child. Some really imaginative ways to handle animal hair clogging up air ducts, or poop on the rug are being advertised on TV. Some cats can learn how to use the bathroom toilet. In ads, dogs are allowed to lick the faces of children. In one ad, the dog looks like it is about to copulate with its owner. Pet cemeteries are all the rage, and old horses are retired to green pastures at a cost I’m sure is almost as high as what is spent on low income humans in homes for the aged. Some eight million cats and an equal number of dogs live in human household luxury, contributing as much to the waste flow and to carbon emission as their owners.

Nevertheless, I’d argue that pets are good for human society, maybe even necessary. One of the benefits of traditional husbandry that the money counters don’t know how to figure into their economic renderings of farm profit and loss is the way it can fill our yearning for pets. Traditional farmers enjoy a bond with “lower” animals and in fact, that enjoyment is very much a part of why they like their work. There is just something so endearing about how a dog or a horse or even a cow, will return love and loyalty shown to it. Just a couple of years ago, after being around chickens all my life, I learned that with a little effort, hens make loving pets. Lambs, turned into pets by bottle feeding, are almost too much. We kept one in the house with a diaper on it one spring and before long it thought it was human and would curl up in my lap and watch television with me. Returning it to the flock turned out to be a real problem. It stood at the fence nearest to our house for several days, bleating away to get back into human society. I suppose I was heartless because there was no way that was going to happen. A full grown ewe watching TV with me? That is the advantage of husbandry over urban pet care. The husbandman knows that in the end the animals that he learns to love and that learn to love him, are going to end up on the barbecue grill. The farm family’s first lesson is to understand that all life sits at a vast table, eating and being eaten. The non-farm pet lovers don’t always grasp this fact of life. They not only want to treat their pets as kindly as they can, but then want to transfer their solicitude to all animals, like squirrels. But when cutie little fuzzy tail gets electrocuted on powerlines, as thousands of them do every year, well “that’s different.” They oppose killing deer but when a deer is killed by a car along with the driver of the car, well, “that’s different.” If one of those cute little woodchucks starts digging big holes next to the house foundation, well, “That’s different— call the exterminators.”

A hopeful sign of the future is that the trend toward more backyard and small farm and even urban ventures into husbandry will bring about a more commonsensical attitude toward animals. I see in the paper news stories about how squirrels are so thick they are causing real problems for cities and individual homes, chewing the electric lines on outdoor Christmas decorations. That could bring practicality to the problem much sooner than even husbandry could.


A few years back I was gathering pears from an old untended pear tree on my college campus. A woman walking by stopped and asked me “what are those?” She had never seem pears growing on a tree before, but only in the supermarket.

Last month an Idaho high school biology teacher killed and butchered a rabbit in class to show students “where their food comes from.” He was disciplined and forced to apologize.

City people seem to think rural folks are socially and politically backward, but incidents like this make me wonder whether city people are becoming too detached from nature and reality.

Oh my, Ron, we’d miss out on a lot without NPR. Just yesterday they reported on a scientific study that says when dogs poop, more often than not, they align themselves on a north/south axis with the sun.

Also did you know that we recently had a salmonella outbreak started by people kissing their backyard chickens?!! Yep, NPR.

We have the same problem with rabbits and even rats where I live. The rabbit population is out of control and we suffer by having to fence all our gardens and protect every fruit tree. They are a huge pest and we inadvertently create an ideal predator-free habitat for them. I think of them as little livestock I don’t have to care for, but just eat. They eat my garden, I eat them.

The rats are a different story. It’s just laziness in actively trapping them or eliminating their food sources that leads to their numbers being so high. As with the rabbits, there are those who don’t want to kill them. Meanwhile they chew into our houses, live in the walls, and burrow under the foundation. It’s not their fault they want to survive, but either they are allowed to overpopulate, or I am allowed to grow my own food and have the house I built continue to exist.

Sorry, WordPress does not provide that. Please proof before sending, or just add another comment with the correction. Thanks. Dave

Hey Gene: How about an “Edit” button so your commenters can go back into a post one time and fix misstatements or bad typing? Washington Post has that. I think it’s time limited so people can’t write incendiary comments and then hide them, but you don’t have that readership, happily. I always feel a deep shame if I post typos or get a fact wrong and it’s nice to be able to correct myself. A thought.

Gene: I really like that you mention carbon emissions as a result of pet ownership. I don’t have a cat or dog anymore but I trap the neighborhood stray cats, have them neutered and feed them. I was standing in PetsMart the other day, stocking up on cat food, and I was struck by the sheer tonnage of meat-based food in the aisle. And meat production, if you factor in feed production, is a primary driver of AGW. So, it’s an important thing to think about. As a matter of fact, It’s why the only meat I eat is game. That’s not a universal solution, but it seems like it would work for some of your readers.

Bill: I got a kick out of your post because my pets are chickens. I’m on my second set. They, like their progenitors, spent their early days in the house, are all named, will have vet visits when needed, and will lie two feet below the flower garden when they die. I really thought they’s be working animals when I first got them, and they do earn their keep by producing eggs and heaps of fertilizer, but they are pets first and foremost.

Yesterday on a homesteading Facebook page someone posted a picture of them taking their pet hen to the vet. We have pets and I’m attached to them. But a chicken? And can someone really be “homesteading” if they take a chicken to the vet?

I don’t mean that to sound judgmental of those who do. I’m sure some might say the same thing about us taking a dog to the vet. But it does make me wonder if our love of pets isn’t being taken a little to far in some cases. And don’t even get me started on people who keep snakes for pets….

Thank you so much, Gene, for responding to my question! I really appreciate you taking the time to do so. I can’t wait to get composting – less plastic bags and waste! Happy Holidays!

Just read a article in mother earth news by Joel Salatin where he discusses species segregation in some of our neighborhoods. He was referring to the ban some municipalities have on keeping chickens. And yet many of those find a dogs and cats to be perfectly fine animals to keep in the same neighborhoods. How many hens have you heard of maiming the neighborhood mailman!?

Anyhow, between that article and this, It certainly has me thinking that as Joel preaches, we are trying to sever ourselves from our ecological umbilical. But worse than that, it seems to be in our nature to fall in love with any creature including humans based on a few good qualities and then suddenly fall into a hate relationship because of a few negative qualities.

One thing that is very clear is that we need to learn, as the good husbandman does, to segregate whats on the table from what’s in our lap.

Betty, there is a fix for your mastiff (I believe, haven’t tried on such a large dog). We keep rat terriers here, which as you may or may not no are tenacious beyond reason, and darn near disastrous on chickens if not properly trained. I tie a piece of 2×2 from their collar so that it dangles like a bar just in front of their front legs. They can’t run without banging their legs against it. I then let one or two older hens into the yard and let the dog in as well. My oldest dog not only learned not to chase but eventually learned to catch hens for me without injuring them!

Matt H.

Yes, oh my, about this–my Italian mastiff recently finished off the last of my two-month-old chicks that I hand incubated, hatched, and reared–hoping for a continuation of eggs and meat. The little birds squeezed through the fencing into the yard where this sweet monster is kept. He did what was is in his nature–he ate them. So now, I want to be rid of him. Thus the dilemma. My first impulse was to shoot his sorry ass–yes, initially I was that mad. But I’ve had him for 5 years, since he showed up uninvited on my farm. I love him and his intimidating presence does keeps nefarious types away from a single woman’s abode. But crap! He ate my chicks! So I offered him up as “free to a good home.” Boy oh boy did I get blow back from that!! I was hit with a barrage of hate, advice on breaking chicken eaters (believe me, I’ve tried it all) and “didn’t I know offering him up for free would condemn him to a life of pain and dog-fighting?” What??!!

Well yes, but what about all HIS killing and maiming??l!

I now so fully get all the old stories–Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, etc. The tension between loving our pets and protecting our livelihood. The poor kids and their pets pitting against the beleaguered dads who had to feed their families.

Yet we insist on anthropomorphizing our pets! But before you bombard me with your indignation, the culprit is blissfully sleeping at my hearth, oblivious to all the chaos he has wrought.

I have never watched TV with a lamb. I guess we should get a TV. (Won’t ever happen.) I am married to the official “Crazy puppy Lady” who has never said no to any pregnant or nursing dog that has been surrendered to a shelter in the central part of our State. She gets the credit, I do poo and pee. A good husband will do that, and so will I. šŸ˜‰ So Gary, five amish rat T’s is quite sane in our world.

I have seen vests for hens that attract too much attention from their rooster. It keeps their backs feathered. Naked hens can be a problem at this time of the year in the colder climes.

Gene’s “Holy Shit” is a great reference for composters and those should compost. But I think he would agree that “The Humanure Handbook” is the last word in dealing with carnivore spoor. The real trick with cat poop is to get them into using a non-clay litter.

And if you have heard the same sponsor blurb on your local NPR station, you know that having matching PJ’s for all the mammals in your house is now the height of fashion. Our critters sleep naked. ‘Nough said.

Fresh from the coop egg nog can’t be beat!!

Abby Boyce: you can put it all together, as far as I know. There is of course lots of controversy, (as with everything else) about pathogens in manure, any manure. Let it compost or rot for two years and then all but the most paranoid in society say it is safe to use as compost. Gene .

This reminds me of a woman who thought I was crazy for working with milk cows. She couldn’t fiqure out how I could spend so much time feeding them and milking them and then when they became old putting them on the truck and sending them down the road. I have had this issue with vegans before but this was interesting for me because she told me her family goes through four gallons of milk a week. Who’s crazy now?

I can’t help thinking that someone is going to regret bumping heads with that lamb in the video, when that lamb is older.

The chicken vests I thought were originally designed for re-homed factory farmed hens, because they had lost many of their feathers due to the stress. It was to keep them warm outside when they were given their first taste of freedom.

One of the pieces of research some of my colleagues in the Landscape Architecture department are looking at is urban agriculture. Let’s hope that some of these initiatives will reconnect people with nature and animals, rather than them seeing such farm animals as pets.

May I suggest you find something other than NPR for your news source?

I have more of a question than a specific comment about your article. I am, in fact, a pet lover, aka crazy in your book, I’m sure. However, I am strongly interested in composting both my cat and dog manure. My husband has been a long time fan of yours, with many of your titles on our bookcase. With my interest in composting the manure, I recently read your book Holy Shit managing manure to save mankind. My question is this: Can you place the manure directly in our regular compost bin with some bedding or compostable litter? We have a compost bin for kitchen compost (coffee grounds and filters, egg shells, banana peels, etc that I do not save to feed to the chickens). Can I just put the dog and cat poop in there as well or does it need a separate pile just with litter or leaves?

I agree people have gone overboard and unrealistic about animals.But then there are my five little Rat Terriers I have in my house spoiled doesn’t even begin to describe them but they listen and behave better than most all the human kids I see these days.Not that that’s saying a lot.They all have names and nicknames they know and respond to so I guess they’re my indulgence of old age(LOL)

Gene, I read post after post after post and wonder how you are able to crawl into my head and extract opinions I am too afraid or unable to write so eloquently. Few people understand that animal farming is made up of blood and guts and stench and most often shitty (but I wouldn’t trade it for the world!) I was just telling a friend I am always reluctant to share farm animal stories, ones my elders wouldn’t even bat an eye for telling, for fear the general population might burn me at the stake for seemingly lack of animal empathy. So a huge shout out to you for writing such an awesome blog. I thank you and appreciate all your posts. Continued blessings of health and happiness are wished for you this holiday season.

There is no doubt pets can and do in most cases reduce stress, provide companionship, and provide us with unconditional love so lacking in this society. We had a small dog for years and after he was put down could not bear to have another pet.

What is truly amazing is the lack of understanding when it comes to animals and our food source. Although there are many books covering this topic I was surprised when I started reading “Why cows need names” to see the analogy of farm animals put on pasture for the first time after a life in confinement much like first graders realizing food does not come from the grocery store. Both cow and child thought food just “appeared”.

There was a reference of a story about a kindergartener touching a milk cow and wondering how in the world cold milk could come out of a warm cow.

Unfortunately, as our society gets farther from nature, we loose the sacred value of where our food really comes from.

Teach your grandchildren how food is grown and raised by getting them and their friends involved.

Ha! This is a great article and provides some much needed thinking material.

The reason those things are advertised on tv is because there are people out there who actually buy that stuff because they haven’t been around the animals in any way other than as “pets”. They have no clue about the real life of some animals, and as you mentioned, it’s a good lesson for children to learn from the get-go. Not only does it prepare them for the inevitable, it also teaches them about life at the same time and how things need to be cared for while they are here. Yes, some animals get far better food and care than some people and in america that should never happen. But it does – quite often.

But some animals are just plain pests.

In my area we are overrun with squirrels who chew up and through everything in sight. They are ruining our wood fence because they use it as a highway to get to the street, which they cross (sometimes I swear they look both ways for cars) and go to the neighbors house across the street where there is a walnut tree. Then the little devils bring those walnuts back to OUR YARD to bury them. Thing is, squirrels are stupid – they forget where they buried things so they tear up the entire yard looking for them later on. They have also buried things in my flower planters and pots on the back deck and then they dig up my stuff (herbs, flowers, vines and all) until they find what they think is in there. It’s really gotten out of hand and we are taking the bull by the horns, so to speak, and decreasing the squirrel population without help. šŸ˜‰

My area has also recently had a serious problem with mountain lions (and no, we are not allowed to have chickens in town). The head count is astronomical, even after approved “hunts”. They are coming into town even onto the busiest streets and thoroughfares. It’s scary because many of our schools are located on the edges of the town because this city is very spread out and sections off into other small towns, so the schools are sometimes located in between “towns”. Our “leaders” know what they have to do but no one is doing it. They’ll wait for some kid to get mauled before they get upset and even then they will do little because we must save the animals, you know. Some people feel the lions are coming into town because chickens are allowed (which they are not) so that’s not the reason. The reason is simple – man has built so far out into the wilderness that there’s no where else for these animals to go. Yet we blame the animals – but do nothing to control what goes on.

We’ve completely gone off the deep end.

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